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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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New Rams QB coach Chris Weinke talks up Sam Bradford

Sam Bradford AP

Despite reports that the Rams might trade or release quarterback Sam Bradford, everyone in St. Louis insists that the team is fully committed to its franchise quarterback.

That includes new Rams quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke, who says he accepted the job in large part because he’s enthusiastic about coaching Bradford.

Love him. Love him,” Weinke told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when asked about Bradford. “Historically, I look back at every guy that I’ve evaluated coming out of college. A few years ago when Andrew Luck came out they said who would you compare him to? And I said the closest I would see is Sam Bradford. And I say that without knowing Sam. I’d never met Sam until this process. Looking at his physical skill set. And then obviously talking to people and understanding his mental capacity and his football IQ, and all those different things. Sam by far has had the best pro day out of any guy I’ve ever evaluated from a physical standpoint. And he was coming off an injury at that point in time. So when you look at a guy who’s a pure passer of the football from a physical standpoint, he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever evaluated.”

Bradford’s $13 million salary in 2015 is awfully expensive, but the Rams’ coaches and executives are talking like they’re willing to pay that money. Bradford is their guy.

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Report: Kyle Wilson not expected back with Jets

Kyle Wilson AP

Kyle Wilson has largely been a disappointment for the New York Jets since being selected in the first round out of Boise State in the 2010 NFL Draft.

The Jets seem to be ready to move on from Wilson this offseason.

According to Kimberley A. Martin of Newsday, Wilson isn’t expected to return to the Jets next season.

Despite his draft status, Wilson only spent one season as full-time starter in New York. In five seasons with the Jets, Wilson managed just three interceptions and never developed into a replacement option for the departed Darrelle Revis or Antonio Cromartie.

Wilson appeared in every game over the last five years for New York with 28 starts. He recorded 162 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

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Texans stadium needs $50 million in upgrades for Super Bowl LI

NRG Stadium Getty Images

Houston will host its third Super Bowl in February 2017 when Super Bowl LI is played at NRG Stadium.

However, the stadium itself requires some significant upgrades over the next two years before the AFC and NFC Champions line up for kickoff.

According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the upgrades required for NRG Stadium could cost upwards of $50 million. The money would go toward installing Wi-Fi in the stadium and upgraded the club and suite areas of the building.

The improvements to the stadium were promised as a part of Houston’s Super Bowl bid.

“There are investments that need to be made to have that special Super Bowl experience – those commitments that were made within the bid when Houston was awarded the Super Bowl,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events.

The majority – if not all – of the money for those upgrades are expected to come from Harris County.

“Some of those (expenses) may be the responsibility of the county, and some may not be,” said Edgar Colon, chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. “We’re analyzing all that and going through the contracts and the documents and having conversations with our major tenants to resolve all of these contractual obligations. I’m sure all are going to be resolved in time.”

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Reports: Browns still in the mix for Josh McCown

Josh McCown AP

If it’s not the Josh McCown Derby, it’s at least a match race.

The Browns, like the Bills, are vying to sign McCown, Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Thursday night.

Furthermore, John Wawrow of the Associated Press reported McCown has engaged in “contract discussions” with Buffalo and Cleveland.

Both reports, it should be noted, said the Bills and Browns were “at least” the teams interested in McCown at the moment. What that means in terms of McCown’s market is unclear.

Now, we wait to see with whom McCown signs and what he garners. The signing team will likely be out of the mix for a veteran quarterback, which could winnow the options for soon-to-be free agents like Brian Hoyer (Cleveland) and Mark Sanchez (Philadelphia).

For McCown, the motivation to get a deal done now is clear. Released by the Buccaneers earlier this month, he’s the only veteran passer currently getting any interest before free agency begins on Tuesday, March 10.

The Bills and Browns have reason to get a contract done, too. Their shopping at the position would be finished, and the cost would be on the books. They could turn their attention to other options when the market opens next month.

And the needs of both clubs go beyond quarterback.

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Steven Jackson has no plans to retire

Bradley McDougald, Steven Jackson AP

Yes, he’s played 11 years in the NFL. Sure, he’s 31. Yep, he was cut by the Falcons on Thursday. But none of that means running back Steven Jackson is calling it quits.

“A lot has been written lately about my future,” Jackson wrote on his official website. “There are questions about my age, and what I have left in the tank. Of that, I will simply say this. For the first nine years of my career, I was used like a battering ram, punishing opposing defense over four quarters of a game. Maybe you stopped me the first five times I got the ball, but by the 15th or 20th time I got it, late in a game — let’s just say you were really feeling me at that point.

“Make no mistake: I can still punish a defense. I still have a warrior’s heart. There are 1,000-yard seasons left in these legs. I know what I am still capable of, and I have every intention of proving it.”

Jackson enters the market at a time when tailbacks like Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson, and DeAngelo Williams, and Jackson is older and has more wear and tear than each of them. At a time when teams are opting for multiple tailbacks who are on the young and cheap side, Jackson could have a hard time getting an acceptable offer. He could have an even harder time getting the reps necessary to churn out more 1,000-yard seasons.

But we wish him the best as he embarks on finding a new home. He’s been a great leader by example on a lot of bad teams. He deserves to get a chance to play for a good team.

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Nelson Peterson mentions three teams as potential destinations for Adrian

Minnesota Vikings v Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

Officially, the Vikings can now speak to running back Adrian Peterson. Unofficially, it sounds like multiple teams have been talking to someone.

On Thursday, Adrian’s father, Nelson Peterson, told Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the elder Peterson has heard “rumors” of three potential destinations for Adrian.

“I’ve heard rumors, Arizona,” Nelson Peterson told Tomasson. “I’ve also heard the rumors of Indianapolis and the Colts, going there with a quarterback the caliber of [Andrew] Luck. I’ve also heard the Cowboys, coming back home with the Cowboys, behind that offensive line that they have.”

Nelson Peterson didn’t say who he heard the rumors from. All three teams make sense, and they mesh with rumors that have been making the rounds in league circles for the past few months.

Regardless of whether Adrian ends up in Arizona now, Nelson has strong feelings about where the Cardinals currently would be if they’d taken Adrian eight years ago.

“Arizona had the opportunity to draft him and they didn’t,” Nelson Peterson said. “They had an opportunity to take him in 2007 with the No. 4 pick and they went and picked Levi Brown. If they would have taken Adrian Peterson, then [quarterback] Kurt Warner would probably still be playing and they probably would have numerous Super Bowls.

“Can you imagine [Adrian] with Kurt Warner and with Larry Fitzgerald in his prime? Oh, man, Arizona would probably have a couple of Super Bowls by now.”

With Adrian turning 30 next month, the window toward being a key piece of a Super Bowl contender is closing. Before he leaves Minnesota in search of a team that may be on the doorstep, he needs to ask himself whether the Vikings may be laying the foundation to get there, sooner than later.

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Report: Raiders releasing safety Tyvon Branch

Oakland Raiders v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

The Raiders are reportedly parting ways with one of their starters in the secondary.

Oakland will release strong safety Tyvon Branch, Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com reported Thursday night.

When healthy, Branch has been a productive starter, notching more than 100 tackles in every season in which he’s played all 16 games (2009, 2010, 2011). However, injuries have limited the 28-year-old Branch to a combined five games in the last two seasons. He missed 13 games with a broken foot in 2014, and the previous season, he sat out 14 games with a broken leg.

Branch was slated to make $5.5 million in salary in 2015, per NFL Players Association data.

With Branch departing, the Raiders could turn to Brandian Ross at strong safety. Ross notched 55 tackles and intercepted two passes in 2014. He is slated to be a restricted free agent.

The Raiders re-signed starting free safety Charles Woodson last month.

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Report: Buster Skrine could get up to $7 million per season

Buster Skrine AP

If the Browns are to bring back free agent cornerback Buster Skrine, it could cost them quite a bit.

According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Skrine is anticipated to garner between $5.5 million and $7 million per season in his next contract. Skrine is expected to be in demand in free agency, the newspaper reported, citing several unnamed sources.

The 25-year-old Skrine intercepted a career-high four passes in 2014 for Cleveland. He has defended 18 passes in each of the last two seasons.

Skrine (5-9, 185) is No. 46 on PFT’s Free Agent Hot 100.

If the Browns were to re-sign Skrine, it would likely keep second-year cornerback Justin Gilbert in a reserve role. The No. 8 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Gilbert had a disappointing rookie season.

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Colts hang onto Matt Hasselbeck for another year

Matt Hasselbeck AP

Having Andrew Luck as their starting quarterback minimizes the need for a Plan B for the Colts.

But they’re hanging onto theirs, just in case.

The Colts announced they had signed pending free agent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to a one-year deal, keeping their trusted backup in house.

Hasselbeck, 39, hasn’t started a game since he was in Tennessee in 2012. And frankly, the Colts hope he doesn’t change that anytime soon.

But the former Seahawks starter has added some gravity to the locker room, and been a good sounding board for Luck during his development, so keeping him made sense for both sides.

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Falcons release Steven Jackson

steven-jackson Getty Images

The man who currently sits at 16 on the all-time rushing list will have to continue his climb through the record book with a new team.

The Falcons have announced that running back Steven Jackson has been released.

After nine seasons with the Rams, Jackson joined the Falcons two years ago. Jackson gained 1,250 yards on 347 carries, scoring 12 touchdowns.

For his career, Jackson has 11,388 yards, more than Hall of Famers John Riggins and O.J. Simpson.

The Falcons won only 10 of 32 games with Jackson on the team, a slump that came after five straight winning seasons.

For Jackson, the sub-.500 seasons continue a career trend. He has never played on a team that finished the year with a winning record. As a rookie in 2004, the Rams qualified for a wild-card berth with an 8-8 record.

The move creates $3.75 million in cap space. Jackson will still count for $1.1 million based on previously-paid bonus money. He immediately becomes a free agent, able to sign with any other team.

For Jackson’s sake, here’s hoping he lands with a team that finally finishes the year with a winning record.

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Vikings can now talk to Adrian Peterson

Adrian Getty Images

The statement they issued didn’t expressly address the question of whether the Vikings can now speak directly to running back Adrian Peterson, who has been restored from suspended status to the Commissioner-Exempt list. Per a team source, they can.

That’s a huge development for the Vikings, who hadn’t been able to make their case directly to Peterson as to why he should return for a ninth season with the team. In a visit last week to PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, coach Mike Zimmer made the case that he’d make directly to Peterson.

Now, Zimmer can make that case directly to Peterson, and the Vikings can try to secure from him a renewed commitment to remain in Minnesota.

Ultimately, the decision could come down to money. For now, the Vikings have the ability to mend fences and rebuild bridges before allowing him to once again break the bank with a base salary of $12.75 million.

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Jean Francois lands in D.C.

Super Bowl XLVII Media Day Getty Images

The Ricky Jean Francois free-agency tour has ended. Jean Francois, per a source with knowledge of the situation, has signed a three-year deal in Washington.

Cut by the Colts earlier this month, Jean Francois attracted interest from several teams (Washington, 49ers, Seahawks) in a process shepherded by his agent, Drew Rosenhaus.

Per the source, the agreement has a base value of $9 million, with $4 million guaranteed. It’s unclear how much of that is fully guaranteed at signing. With incentives, the deal could be worth up to $11.25 million.

Jean Francois spent the last two seasons in Indianapolis after starting his career with the 49ers as a draft pick of former 49ers G.M. (and new Washington G.M.) Scot McCloughan.

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Washington hires Dave Ragone as quality control coach

Dave Ragone, Ryan Fitzpatrick AP

A former Titans position coach has been added to Jay Gruden’s coaching staff.

Washington has hired Dave Ragone as an offensive quality control coach, the club announced Thursday.

The 35-year-old Ragone was the Titans’ quarterbacks coach in 2013 and their wide receivers coach in 2011 and 2012. He also coached quarterbacks for the UFL’s Hartford Colonials in 2010.

Ragone played three seasons at quarterback with the Texans (2003-2005), starting two games as a rookie. He also had stints with the Bengals and Rams in 2006.

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Vikings continue to focus on welcoming Adrian Peterson back

Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The Vikings have been silent in the hours since Judge David Doty vacated the suspension of running back Adrian Peterson. Earlier in the hour, they issued a statement which makes it clear that, for now, they’ll continue to be silent when it comes to talking directly to Peterson.

“Adrian Peterson is an important member of the Minnesota Vikings, and our focus remains on welcoming him back when he is able to rejoin our organization,” the Vikings said in a statement. “Today’s ruling leaves Adrian’s status under the control of the NFL, the NFLPA and the legal system, and we will have no further comment at this time.”

Peterson already was due to have his suspension revisited on April 15, with the possibility of a reinstatement at that time. It’s unclear whether the NFL’s appeal and/or further proceedings before arbitrator Harold Henderson will alter that timeline.

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Recalling the Raymond Berry era and New England’s failed run at Bill Walsh

Raymond Berry on the sideline Getty Images

Bill Belichick. Pete Carroll. Bill Parcells. As coaching goes, the Patriots couldn’t have done much better over the last 22 seasons.

Parcells is a Hall of Famer, and Belichick will surely have his day in Canton, too. Carroll, meanwhile, went on to lead title-winning teams at USC and with the Seattle Seahawks after leaving New England, so the Patriots were on the right track.

But let’s go back a little further, to December 1989, when the Patriots tried to hire another Hall of Fame coach.

According to the late, great Will McDonough of the Boston Globe, then-Patriots owner Victor Kiam offered New England’s head coaching/G.M. roles to former 49ers coach Bill Walsh. However, Walsh turned down the offer, citing his commitment to continue working for NBC, the Globe reported.

Still, a coaching change was coming for New England, which fell to 5-11 in ’89.

Twenty-five years ago Thursday, the Patriots parted ways with head coach Raymond Berry, reportedly because of a conflict over the hiring of New England’s offensive and defensive coordinators.

A Hall of Fame wide receiver, Berry was a successful NFL head coach, too. He led the Patriots to a 51-41 mark, with New England making the Super Bowl for the first time in its history in his first full season on the job. Overall, the Patriots posted winning records in his first four full campaigns (1985-1988).

The Patriots would tab Steelers defensive coordinator Rod Rust to replace Berry, but he was fired after New England was a league-worst 1-15 in 1990. The Pats then turned to Syracuse head coach Dick McPherson, who led New England to a 6-10 mark in ’91. However, New England was 2-14 in ’92, with McPherson missing seven games because of illness. He was replaced in January 1993.

From there, the Patriots hired Parcells, who led New England to the playoffs in his second season and the Super Bowl in his fourth. Then came the three-season stint for Carroll (1997-1999), who was then replaced by Belichick.

But before that trio of coaches came the 9-39 stretch the franchise endured in the three seasons after Berry’s departure. Would things have been different if the Patriots lured Walsh east, or if Berry stayed on? If Walsh succeeded in New England, would Parcells ever have had reason to join the franchise? How would franchise history have been altered?

We’ll never know. But we do know this: Raymond Berry, like Belichick and Carroll, won more than he lost in his time in Foxborough, and he has his own spot in Patriots history.

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