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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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Joseph Randle and Dez Bryant argue before Cowboys practice

Joseph Randle AP

Joseph Randle has managed to top himself, and this one is the kind of thing that could have consequences for him.

According to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Cowboys running back has made his own dumb situation worse by dragging teammates into it, and it spilled over into practice today.

Randle and wide receiver Dez Bryant were apparently in a “snit,” before practice today, and veteran tight end Jason Witten had to step in and tell Randle to “shut up.”

It’s possible that it’s because of something Randle said during the infamous jailhouse video after his arrest for stealing underwear and cologne.

In addition to offering a female cop $100 for a massage, Randle committed an even dumber crime — he compared himself to a teammates’ situation.

Dez didn’t miss no games for smacking his momma,” Randle said during his booking on the theft charges, referencing Bryant’s 2012 arrest on family violence charges following an altercation with his mother.

He also referenced defensive tackle Josh Brent’s situation during his booking, in an apparent attempt to justify or lessen the seriousness of his own situation.

The amazing streak of stupidity involved in this case is breathtaking, as Randle seemingly doesn’t know not to take other people’s things, have any respect for law enforcement, or the good sense to keep a (more valuable) teammates’ name out of his mouth.

Randle doesn’t seem to have the good sense to shut up when he’s behind, and might eventually find out how replaceable a fifth-round running back can be.

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Darren Sproles, Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce all probable for Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

The Eagles are set to get a couple of key offensive players back in the lineup this weekend.

The team released their final injury report of the week on Friday and running back Darren Sproles and center Jason Kelce are both probable to play against the Texans. Sproles missed last week’s loss to the Cardinals with a knee injury, but he’s been able to practice all week and should be back to his customary roles on both offense and special teams.

Kelce’s absence has been considerably longer following sports hernia surgery, but he’s been practicing for the last two weeks and hasn’t experienced any lingering limitations because of the injury. As a result, he’s expected to be in the starting lineup against Houston.

That brings the Eagles very close to having their intended starting offensive line together as left guard Evan Mathis is due back next week from injured reserve-recall. Right guard Todd Herremans tore a biceps muscle last weekend, but he practiced all week and was listed as probable for the game as well. Assuming Herremans holds up well enough to continue playing with an injury that typically requires surgery and a long spell on the shelf, the Eagles line should be whole as the second half of the season gets underway.

Safety Nate Allen is questionable with a hamstring injury, as is wide receiver Brad Smith as he continues rehab from his own sports hernia.

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Jordan Cameron not present at Friday practice

Jordan Cameron AP

The Browns seem likely to be without one of their key passing game targets in Week Nine.

Tight end Jordan Cameron wasn’t spotted at practice on Friday, Browns beat writer Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal reported. Cameron, who suffered a concussion in Sunday’s win vs. Oakland, has yet to participate in any practices this week.

Per NFL rules, Cameron — who’s suffered three concussions in a span of less than two calendar years — will have to be medically cleared to return to practice and game action.

With Cameron seemingly out, Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge are likely to be the top options at tight end for 4-3 Cleveland, which hosts Tampa Bay on Sunday.

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RG3: I’m not going to try to be a normal quarterback

Tennessee Titans v Washington Redskins Getty Images

With Robert Griffin III’s return to the starting quarterback job all but certain, the question for the Redskins will shift from when will Griffin return to what kind of quarterback he’ll be when he’s back in the lineup.

Ever since Griffin has joined the team, there has been a tug-of-war between those that think he needs to tone down his running for the sake of safety as he becomes a more “traditional” quarterback and those that think his best path to success is being the same type of quarterback he’s been throughout his career. That debate was in the spotlight this preseason as Griffin appeared to struggle while making the transition to head coach Jay Gruden’s offensive scheme, which called for him to run less than he did in the Shanahan years.

Griffin gave an interview to the team’s website, his first since Gruden said he’ll start on Sunday barring any setbacks, and shared some of his thoughts on the matter.

“I’m ready to go, ready to play, get back out there with the guys and have fun. That’s what it is,” Griffin said. “God didn’t put us on this earth to be normal. So I’m not gonna go out there and try to be a normal quarterback. I’m gonna go out there and be the quarterback he’s called me to be.”

Whether he’s a “normal” quarterback or not, the Redskins need to figure out if he’s the right quarterback for them over the long term. That’s why he’ll return to the starting lineup despite Colt McCoy handling things well the last two weeks and it will be the biggest question to answer over the second half of Washington’s season.

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Giovani Bernard not present at practice Friday

Carolina Panthers v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

The Bengals’ leading rusher could be in danger of missing Sunday’s game vs. Jacksonville.

Tailback Giovani Bernard (hip/clavicle) wasn’t spotted at Friday’s practice, Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported this morning. Bernard didn’t participate in the Bengals’ first two workouts of the week, and a third straight missed practice would throw his status for Week Nine into doubt.

A second-year pro from North Carolina, Bernard has racked up 446 yards and five TDs on 109 carries this season, starting all seven games.

If Bernard can’t go, rookie running back Jeremy Hill would get the start for Cincinnati (4-2-1). The second-round pick from LSU has rushed for 195 yards and three TDs on 50 attempts.

While Bernard wasn’t present at practice, wideout A.J. Green (toe) was on the field Friday, Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com reported. Green is seeking to return to action after missing the last three games. The Pro Bowl receiver was a limited practice participant on Wednesday and Thursday after missing the previous eight workouts with his injury.

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Jerry says we’ll know if Romo is playing when inactives come in

Bush Library AP

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said today that the Cowboys won’t reveal whether or not Tony Romo can play Sunday until they turn in their list of inactive players on Sunday morning.

Jones said Romo is loosening up his back today and looks OK, but we’ll have to wait until we see whether Romo’s name is on the inactive list before kickoff to learn whether Romo or Brandon Weeden is the starter.

“He’s moving around, been in the meetings today,” Jones said on KRLD. “We make that decision at game time when it’s day to day. We turn that in, obviously you’ve got your 53-man roster and you’ve got to turn your actives in within an hour before the game, and that’s when you’ll know.”

Jones referenced his “Dr. Jones” nickname and said that he’s not involved with the decision, and all he knows is what he hears from Romo and the team’s medical staff. But Jones also hinted that the Cowboys may be purposely vague because they want the Cardinals to have to prepare for both Romo and Weeden.

“The more you can make that other thing cover preparation, cover different possibilities, I think that is a good thing,” Jones said.

It may be a good thing for the Cowboys to make the Cardinals guess. It won’t be a good thing for the Cowboys to be without Romo — or with a Romo who’s less than 100 percent healthy — when they take on the team with the best record in the NFC.

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Belichick has a bone to pick with meteorologists

belichick AP

Patriots coach Bill Belichick wishes the weatherman would get his act together.

Belichick said today that while wind or rain might affect Sunday’s game against the Broncos, he isn’t game planning for any particular weather because he doesn’t think the weather forecasts are particularly accurate.

“Based on the forecasts we’ve gotten so far this year, none of them were very close to what the game conditions were. There was a 100 percent chance of rain last week, and the only water I saw was on the Gatorade table,” Belichick said, via the Boston Globe. “It is what it is. We’ve got to be ready for whatever it is.”

Mark Twain once said that if you don’t like the weather in New England, you just have to wait 15 minutes for it to change. Beichick says there’s no point in even trying to predict the weather 48 hours in advance.

“My experience of going with the forecast, in this area, two days before the game, I’d bet a lot that they’re wrong, just based on history, because they’re almost always wrong,” Belichick said. “An hour before the game? Maybe, you might have something to work with there. But if you start game planning for what the weather is going to be and you game plan wrong, you’ve wasted a lot of time.”

Belichick waits until just before kickoff to give any thought to whether the weather should affect the Patriots’ play calling.

“When you walk out on the field, that’s really when you know what it is. The rest of it is a bunch of hot air,” he said. “We played down in Miami two years ago and there was a zero percent chance of rain – zero – and it rained. If I did my job the way they do theirs, I’d be here about a week.”

It was pointed out to Belichick that some meteorologists might take offense to his criticism.

“Look, I’m not saying I could do it better than them. I’m just saying they’re wrong a lot,” Belichick said. “That’s a fact. They’re wrong a lot.”

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PFT Live: Cowboys talk with Charean Williams, PFT Planet calls and tweets

Tony Romo AP

The Cowboys lost for the first time since the opening week of the season on Monday night in a game that also saw quarterback Tony Romo knocked out for a while after taking a hit to the back.

Romo’s status for this Sunday is unclear at this point and Mike Florio will be talking to Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram during Friday’s edition of PFT Live about the chances that he’ll be in the lineup. They’ll also discuss the potential risks involved with running back DeMarco Murray’s heavy workload, some injury issues on the offensive line and much more about the Cowboys during the show.

Florio will be asking the questions during that segment of the program, but he’ll also be answering them from PFT Planet a bit later on. Let us know what’s on your mind in Week Nine on Twitter — @ProFootballTalk — or by calling 888-237-5269 during the program.

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

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Stevie Johnson not frustrated by spot on 49ers depth chart

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos Getty Images

When wide receiver Stevie Johnson was in Buffalo, he served as the team’s No. 1 receiver most of the time.

No one was surprised when that changed with the offseason trade that brought him to San Francisco because the 49ers already had Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree in house, but there wasn’t a wide expectation that Johnson would wind up as the fourth man in the pecking order at wideout. That’s how things have played out, however, and Johnson has been playing fewer snaps than Brandon Lloyd.

Johnson admits that he’d like to be doing more, but says he isn’t frustrated by his spot because of the players in front of him.

“No frustration at all. [The] only sense of frustration is being a competitor, you know, wanting to do more. But it ain’t like there’s a bunch of pansies in front of me,” Johnson said, via CSNBayArea.com. “It’s cool to a certain extent. When we get in those situations, in the heat of the moment, of course, I’m a warrior. I’m ready to go out there. We got great guys out there on the field. You can’t be frustrated. It’s not going to look right.”

Johnson has produced in the playing time he has received with 10 catches in the two weeks before San Francisco went on their bye and 30 catches overall this season, which likely joins with the chance to make it to the postseason for the first time to help with any feelings of frustration.

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Two Jets fans launch assault on John Idzik’s job

Jets Getty Images

It’s nearly November, which means it’s nearly time for website, billboards, and airplane banners calling for the ouster of NFL coaches and/or General Managers.

In New York, a pair of Jets season-ticket holders have launched FireJohnIdzik.com, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.

Brothers Jason and Jared Koeppel hope to raise enough money to purchase a billboard outside MetLife Stadium calling for Idzik’s ouster.  The idea came from this week’s Idzik press conference, which began with an extended exercise in self-flagellation by the G.M.

“First of all, Sunday’s game was ridiculous,” Jason Koeppel told Mehta.  “We left the stadium beyond another level of angry.  Then Monday was the tipping point.  I’m listening going ‘are you kidding me?’  We had to do something.”

Although Idzik hasn’t even had the chance to hire his own head coach, the 2014 could end badly enough that Idzik doesn’t survive it.  At 1-7 through eight games, would owner Woody Johnson keep Idzik if the team finishes 2-14 or 3-13?

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Mike Wallace says he’s just being honest calling out Dolphins’ offense

Mike Wallace AP

Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace used an obscenity to describe the quality of Miami’s offense in Sunday’s win over the Jaguars. Asked to elaborate this week, Wallace said he was just trying to give a frank assessment.

“Y’all asked me a question and I told y’all my honest answer. That’s just what it is,” Wallace told reporters. “I don’t look at stuff in the media or whatever to get me fired up. I get fired up just ’cause that’s what we do. We love to play this game and you just want to go out and be the best player you can be. You should be fired up anyway — not because of nothing I say or my teammates or coaches say.”

The Dolphins’ offense was not particularly good on Sunday, but they won 27-13 thanks to two interception returns for touchdowns by the Dolphins’ defense. Wallace did catch a 50-yard pass, which was nice, but other than that big play he had just one catch for nine yards. There’s been talk in Miami that Wallace isn’t happy with the inability of the offense to make use of his big-play talents, and talk that the Dolphins aren’t happy with Wallace’s level of production. But Wallace says there are no issues.

“There was no disconnect between me and the coaches,” Wallace said. “We’re all on the same page. We all want what’s best for the team. We all want to win, we all want to get our offense where we want to go and that’s the top. If we’re not No. 1, we’re behind.”

The Dolphins’ passing game has a long way to go before it’s No. 1. Making those 50-yard catches a common occurrence would be a good step toward getting to No. 1.

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Report: Criminal charges unlikely for Ray McDonald

McDonald Getty Images

49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald has yet to be charged with assaulting his pregnant fiancée, and he apparently won’t be.

According to Tracey Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News, prosecutors in Santa Clara County are leaning against officially charging McDonald.  Kaplan writes that the prosecutor is “likely to announce the decision soon,” which will be accompanied by a report that explains the reasons for not proceeding.

Evidence that the alleged victim may have been the aggressor undermines the case, and the involvement of San Jose police officer Sean Pritchard further complicates the situation.  Pritchard, who had worked on the side for the 49ers, already was present at McDonald’s house when the officers responding to the 911 call arrived.

The San Jose police department has directed its officers to stop providing security services to the 49ers while not on duty, given that this separate relationship creates an obvious conflict of interest when it comes to the enforcement of the laws in a way that could make key 49ers players not available for games.

McDonald has continued to play, creating confusion among NFL fans and the perception of competitive imbalance, given the decision to essentially suspend Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy with pay until their own legal cases have been resolved.

For McDonald, there ultimately may be nothing to resolve.

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Reshad Jones: I’m playing like the best safety in the league

Reshad Jones AP

The Dolphins Defense will be tasked with slowing down Philip Rivers and the Chargers passing attack this weekend, something that would have probably been more troubling to them before safety Reshad Jones returned from his suspension.

In the three games that Jones has played for the Dolphins this year, he has recorded 24 tackles and an interception while quarterbacks are completing under half of their passes to his area of the field. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle believes Jones is playing his best football in the three years that Coyle’s been with the team and Jones had some high praise of his own for his work in 2014.

“I’m playing like the best safety in the league, actually,” Jones said, via the Miami Herald. “Numbers don’t lie. If you compare my numbers to the other safeties in the league, with what I’ve done, it stacks up with the best of them.”

It’s a good time for Jones to be playing at a high level. The game with the Chargers kicks off a four-game stretch against teams with winning records, including a visit from the Bills that will weigh heavily on the playoff chances for both teams.

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Browns trying to bring out the dog in their defense

Oakland Raiders v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

Some football players are easier to motivate than others.

And the Browns are using props to help keep their defensive players on edge, playing on the team’s Dawg Pound heritage.

According to Dan Labbe of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil came up with a system to reward his guys for making plays.

“What we came up with that was unique to the Dawg Pound was to give each player a dog collar,” O’Neil said. “And those guys would be rewarded for plays on the field with a bone for every time they did something that we considered a ‘Play Like A Brown’ play.”

Now, players are competing to see who ends up with the most bones, though the coaches are withholding the standings for now

“It’s keeping guys competitive,” linebacker Jabaal Sheard said. “Not only against the other team, but against one another.”

“I don’t know how many bones you get for sacks,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “Because Paul Kruger, he should be outweighing me by a lot right now. I don’t know how many you get for a sack, but he’s got a lot.”

The Browns Defense is playing well, and has them above .500 after Halloween, which not many expected.

So if they want to dress up, more power to them.

 

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Brandon Weeden not sure if he’s getting called out of the pen

Brandon Weeden AP

Here’s a sentence that should strike more fear in the hearts of Cowboys fans than a carload of teenagers bearing eggs tonight.

Brandon Weeden is preparing to start for the Cowboys Sunday against the Cardinals.

Sure, they hope Tony Romo’s “pain tolerance” allows him to play, and he thinks it will, but the Cowboys still have to get ready as if their quarterback with a back injury might not.

Weeden compared the not knowing whether he’d be needed to his last year playing baseball, and his uneasiness with being in the bullpen.

“My last year playing baseball I was dealing with some shoulder issues, so I was a reliever and in the bullpen, and I used to get so ticked off because my manager never told me if I was hot that night or not,” Weeden said, via Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It’s really hard. It’s just a different mindset. It’s the uncertainty of you may play or you may not play for six, seven, eight weeks, whatever. You just don’t know.

“So you’ve just got to approach it like you’re going to play at some point. That way, if your number is called, you’re not caught off guard.”

The 31-year-old Weeden played well in relief Sunday night, throwing a touchdown and completing 4-of-6 passes before Romo returned to the game. He led them on two scoring drives, and the game was tied when he left.

“He performed well,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “He took us down on a couple of scoring drives. I think the thing that was most important was his demeanor. He looked very veteranlike. You could tell he’d played. He’s an older player. Young in the league, but the guy’s got a lot of maturity to him. It’s not too big for him to go out there and step in in a relief mode and play. Nor is it too big for him to be prepared as a starter, because he’s done it in this league. We’re very confident in him.”

The fact he’s gotten all the work in the preseason and on Wednesdays all season helps him familiarize, and he’ll need to be ready for long relief work, in case Romo can’t tolerate the pain which obviously has coaches worried.

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