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Sunday night wrap-up: Manning, Broncos roll Saints

New Orleans Saints v Denver Broncos Getty Images

His arm might not be full strength yet.

And then he whacked his right thumb on a helmet just before halftime, leaving a small trail of blood on his throwing hand.

Boy, if Peyton Manning ever gets well, some people are going to be in trouble.

Manning was a sharp 22-of-30 for 305 yards and three touchdowns in the Broncos’ 34-14 win over the Saints Sunday night. It was the best indication to date he’s all the quarterback the Broncos need to be contenders if not the favorites in the AFC. (Watch highlights here.)

With an offense that’s beginning to click and a schedule that softens as it goes, the Broncos are in excellent position to make a run.

That he doesn’t look like the Manning of five years ago with the Colts matters not at all. He’s looking comfortable running this offense, which is the important one at the moment, as no one in the AFC looks any better than the Broncos looked dismantling the Saints.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1. Putting Chase Daniel in a Drew Brees outfit for Halloween was a bad idea for the Saints.

Oh, wait, that was really Brees?

Anyone who thinks the Saints star quarterback doesn’t miss Sean Payton this year is kidding themselves.

Brees completed just 22-of-42 passes for 213 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and the Saints offense lacked any degree of flow whatsoever.

They’ve got an odd lot of running backs they can’t seem to figure out how to maximize, but they’ve always been able to pass around that. Even with tight end Jimmy Graham back on the field, they looked disjointed.

Sure sign of ridiculousness: The Saints were well under 5.0 yards per pass attempt for the pertinent part of the evening, and part of that is on Brees himself.

Payton may not have been able to have the Saints 5-2 instead of their current 2-5, but he’d make a significant difference in the way they’re playing, and would have Brees looking more like Brees.

2. It’s easy, and appropriate, to spend a lot of time on Manning when the Broncos are on.

But running back Willis McGahee remains the engine of that offense.

As long as John Fox is the coach (and the underappreciated Mike McCoy the offensive coordinator), they’re never going to get too far from the run game. And though it’s easy to overlook, the Broncos called 38 run plays and 30 passes when Manning was on the field Sunday, which is not accidental.

They want to incorporate Ronnie Hillman into things, to take advantage of his explosive speed. But McGahee (23 carries for 122 yards) is still getting it done at a high level.

3. The Saints got an emotional boost from the return of linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

And though he moved back into the starting lineup Sunday night, one thing that was growing more and more evident last year was that Vilma’s play was dropping off.

Acquiring Curtis Lofton was not unrelated to the bounty related uncertainty over Vilma’s future, but it was also a reflection of Vilma’s declining play.

There were moments against the Broncos when Vilma looked out of place, and while he’s coming in cold, and changing positions, the reality is he’s not an impact player anymore.

4. With the way things went down in Jacksonville, I’m not sure Jack Del Rio will get a head coaching gig again soon.

But as a defensive coordinator, he and Fox work very well together. In Carolina in 2002, they helped create a six-game bounce in one season by playing dominant defense.

They’re approaching that now.

The Broncos have an interesting group of players on that side, and Del Rio was willing to move his personnel around, putting Von Miller in spots he hadn’t been to create pressure.

Along with the improved Wesley Woodyard, they’re getting better-than-expected play from their front seven, and Del Rio has a hand in that by putting them in the right places.

5. The Saints lack the personnel up front to play defense the way defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wants to play.

But while the talent on the edges is deficient, the Saints appear to have at least one promising interior player on their hands in rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.

The third-rounder from Canada’s University of Regina has the kind of strength and burst the Saints were lacking inside.

If you can push the pocket from the middle, that’s the shortest distance between two points, and it also makes it easier for ordinary players on the edges.

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Peyton whacks his thumb on a helmet, while building lead

Denver Broncos running back Willis McGahee takes a handoff from Denver quarterback Peyton Manning against the New Orleans Saints in the first quarter of their NFL football game in Denver Reuters

The Broncos are out to a 17-7 halftime lead over the Saints, but they aren’t out of the woods yet.

They have to worry about quarterback Peyton Manning’s right thumb, which he whacked on a helmet just before the two-minute warning.

Manning appeared to have some blood on the thumb, but finished the half.

He’s 11-of-16 for 178 yards and a touchdown, and has looked sharper than Drew Brees in the battle of big-name quarterbacks.

But how he responds when the Broncos take the ball to start the second half will be huge.

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Brees ties game, Elway with TD pass

New Orleans Saints v Denver Broncos Getty Images

Saints quarterback Drew Brees did more than tie the game with his 29-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles.

He also tied John Elway for sixth on the all-time touchdown pass list, with his 300th, against Elway’s team.

It also extends his consecutive games with a touchdown streak to 50, extending his own record.

At the rate he and Peyton Manning are tossing it around, it might not be the last record tonight.

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Broncos grab early lead, as Manning hits the long and short

Peyton Manning AP

Everybody was worried about Peyton Manning throwing the long ball.

The really short one got the Broncos on the board first.

Manning staked the Broncos to a 7-0 lead by working the ball around sharply. The 41-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas will make all the highlight shows, but the best throw might have traveled about a yard in the air, if that.

The touchdown was set up by a 14-yard pass to Willis McGahee that is best described as crafty. Both Saints linebackers were sucked inside, Manning put the pass into McGahee’s hip pocket in traffic, and the running back did the rest of the work. It was initially ruled a touchdown, but was overturned on review.

The Broncos did the courteous thing, and let McGahee get the score on the next play.

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Vilma to start for Saints, Porter inactive for Broncos

Jonathan Vilma, Justin Drescher AP

The Saints will have Jimmy Graham back on the field tonight, and they’ll also have Jonathan Vilma back in the starting lineup.

Vilma will replace the inactive David Hawthorne for the Saints tonight against the Broncos.

Also inactive for the Saints are tight end Daniel Graham, defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, tackle Bryce Harris, wide receiver Joe Morgan, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and linebacker Scott Shanle.

For the Broncos, cornerback Tracy Porter was on the inactive list, not yet cleared after a fear of seizure symptoms.

Also inactive for the Broncos are quarterback Caleb Hanie, running back Knowshon Moreno, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, linebacker Steven Johnson, offensive lineman C.J. Davis and tight end Julius Thomas.

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Samuel says Reid snubbed him after the game

Asante Samuel AP

One of the overlooked story lines in Sunday’s game between the Falcons and Eagles came from the fact that Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel was facing his former team from Philly for the first time.

After the game, the always-loquacious Asante had something to say about his former head coach, Andy Reid.

Reid snubbed him.

“Andy Reid, why didn’t you speak to me?” Samuel told reporters, via  “What did I do to you man?  I got nothing but love for you Big Red. . . .  He wouldn’t speak to me, man, can you believe that?  As happy as I am, he wouldn’t even tell me ‘Great game Asante, I love ya man.'”

Samuel addressed the topic several times in his comments to the media.

“Can you believe that?” Samuel said.  “He didn’t speak to me.  Like it’s my fault, like what did I do to you?  You know what I meant?  I think it was the way we was dancing out there; it got to him a little bit.”

If Reid didn’t care for Samuel’s dancing, Samuel’s comments may get to Reid a little, too.

“The difference between these teams?” Samuel said.  “I think it’s the coaching. We got really good coaching, we run the ball.”

Reid has bigger fish to fry than worrying about what Samuel has to say.  Still, it’s more proof that things are quickly unraveling for Reid and the Eagles.

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Jay Cutler understands Bears fans booing him at halftime

Jay Cutler AP

When Bears quarterback Jay Cutler walked off the field after a three-turnover, six-sack first half, he may or may not have remarked on the loyalty of his home fans. My lip reading’s rusty.

But after they escaped with a 23-22 win over the Panthers, Cutler admitted the offense was not where it should have been.

“I’d boo us too, . . . It was a boo-worthy performance,” Cutler said, via Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune. “It was pathetic offensively what we put out there offensively.

“We’ve got to get better. We know that, our fans know that. Luckily enough, we got out of there with a win.”

Well, luck, a Panthers team that’s now 1-10 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Ron Rivera, and Cutler himself.

Playing after a rib injury last week, Cutler turned in another good finish, moving his team efficiently up and down the field in the fourth quarter for a comeback.

Say what you want about his attitude, he’s getting the job done for the 6-1 Bears.

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Knee and quad contusion for Ryan Tannehill

Miami Dolphins v New York Jets Getty Images

The initial report on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s condition doesn’t sound too bad for the rookie.

Peter King of Football Night in America spoke to Dolphins coach Joe Philbin and Philbin said that Tannehill suffered a left quad and knee contusion in the first quarter of Sunday’s 30-9 win over the Jets. Tannehill was hurt on a sack by Jets linebacker Calvin Pace and hobbled off the field. Matt Moore took over at quarterback and didn’t make any mistakes while navigating the Dolphins to their fourth win of the season.

Philbin said that they wouldn’t know more about Tannehill’s outlook until Monday, but King said that the coach didn’t sound worried. As of now, there’s no expectation that he will miss any time as a result of the injury.

If so, that means he’ll be at the controls in an intriguing matchup of rookie quarterbacks piloting 4-3 teams when the Dolphins head to Indianapolis for a date with the Colts.

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Giants hold on for win in exciting battle with Cowboys

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

After the first few minutes of Sunday’s game between the Giants and Cowboys, it seemed like the Cowboys would be a lot more than a few inches away from beating the Giants.

As it turns out, that’s exactly how close they came. Dez Bryant made what appeared to be a brilliant leaping catch of a ball in the end zone with 10 seconds left to play to give the Cowboys a win, but it was clear on replay that his fingers were out of bounds by inches as he came to the turf. Tony Romo would just miss Miles Austin at the goal line a couple of plays later and then throw the ball out of the end zone, which was enough to give the Giants a 29-24 win that looked much easier in the second quarter.

That was when the Giants were up 23-0 thanks to four Cowboys turnovers. The Giants couldn’t press their lead, though, and Tony Romo hooked up with Bryant, Austin and Jason Witten for huge numbers to bring the Cowboys back to a 24-23 lead. The Giants offense was dreadful from the 23-0 point until the Cowboys grabbed the lead with Eli Manning looking particularly off until the fourth quarter began. That’s when he led the Giants to two field goals sandwiched around a Felix Jones fumble and made sure that the Jets didn’t have any competition in the New York area rage department this Sunday.

Romo had another chance to lead the Cowboys back before that wild final drive, but he was picked off for the fourth time by Giants safety Stevie Brown on a fourth down heave. Romo wound up with 437 passing yards, Witten set a Cowboys record with 17 catches and all three of the receivers mentioned above had more than 100 passing yards. All of that production was undone by the six turnovers, though, and that’s the ultimate reason they lost.

The Giants never really got things moving offensively on Sunday and the defense struggled for long stretches, but they made fewer mistakes and made enough plays in the fourth quarter to save the day. That’s become their calling card and, at 6-2, it’s one they’re likely to keep playing a while longer.

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Trent Richardson earns Jim Brown stamp of approval

San Diego Chargers v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

Cleveland rookie running back Trent Richardson turned in a legendary performance Sunday, and was congratulated by a legend for it.

Richardson was greeted after the game by Hall of Famer Jim Brown, putting aside some of the previous criticisms that made their relationship a chilly one.

The man who Brown called “ordinary” back in the spring turned in a Brown-like 24 carries for 122 yards and the only touchdown in a 7-6 win over the Chargers.

That’s my partner, man,” Brown said, via Tony Grossi of “He never took anything I said the wrong way. He’s interested in his family. He’s interested in his team.

“He’s hurt and he performed in a way that he didn’t have to. It’s an attitude. He did that for his team.”

Richardson’s game as he recovered from a rib injury showed toughness, but so did the Browns as a whole.

They played turnover-free football on a raw, rainy, windy Cleveland afternoon.

“I’m still thawing out,” Richardson said. “[Teammates] said it’s not even cold yet. Felt cold to me. This is football weather.”

And Richardson looked like a football player in it, like Brown did so many years ago.

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DeAngelo Williams more likely to be traded in the offseason

Seattle Seahawks v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

Teams may be calling the Panthers to see if they can acquire running back DeAngelo Williams from a team without a G.M.  For now, it appears that the Panthers won’t bite.

A league source tells PFT that a trade is more likely to happen, if at all, after the Panthers hire a General Manager.

Of Williams’ $5.25 million base salary in 2012, $5 million is fully guaranteed.  After this season, none of the remaining money is guaranteed.

Per a source with knowledge of the contract, Williams is due to earn $4.75 million in base salary in 2013, $5.75 million in 2014, and $6.75 million in 2015.

A trade before June 1 of 2013 would result in a $9.6 million cap acceleration for the Panthers; after June 1, Williams would cost $3.2 million against the cap in 2013 and $6.4 million in 2013.  A trade before Tuesday would result in the entire $9.6 million hitting the cap in 2012.  (As of early September, the Panthers had only $5.3 million in cap space.)

Of course, none of this will stop teams from trying to swipe Williams from the Panthers between now and 4:00 p.m. ET Tuesday.

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Vick believes this one wasn’t his fault

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Publicly, Eagles quarterback Mike Vick seems to be throwing in the towel.

Privately, he’s doing anything but.

Vick told reporters after Sunday’s loss to the Falcons that coach Andy Reid is considering making a quarterback change — and that Vick would support it.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Vick privately is upset about the situation.

Vick believes that today’s loss wasn’t his fault.  He had no turnovers, and he thinks that the performance of the defense kept him from ever having a chance to win the game.

It’s be interesting to see what Reid says in response.  With the Eagles already closing up shop on Monday for Hurricane Sandy, we may not hear from him for a few days.

The Eagles return to action next Monday night, against the Saints in New Orleans.

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Raiders improve to 3-4, approach being good

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

Watching the Raiders manhandle the Chiefs Sunday, a thorough 26-16 thrashing, didn’t inspire much confidence.

A good team would have beaten the Chiefs by a much, much bigger margin. And good teams aren’t 3-4 this time of year.

At the same time, the Raiders have won two in a row (though the other one was against the Jaguars), along with beating the Steelers and giving the undefeated Falcons one of the best games anyone has all year.

There are moments when the Raiders look like an utterly capable professional football team.

They’re still very young in the rebuilding process, but there are clearly parts to build with on both sides of the football. I’m not sure Carson Palmer is the guy to quarterback them when they get closer to good, but he’s good enough to beat the chaff of the league.

The Chiefs fell to 1-6 with the loss, and the Saints should be eternally embarrassed for losing to them in overtime. The Chiefs haven’t led for a second of game time yet this year, and may not.

Brady Quinn didn’t return to the game after a first-half head injury, and Matt Cassel was the only other quarterback in uniform, or else inactive Ricky Stanzi might have gotten a turn. Cassel took a hard shot late from Richard Seymour, but can at least be hailed for his toughness, if not his aptitude.

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League doesn’t rule out taking draft picks from repeat injury report offenders

Washington Redskins v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

With thee teams being fined $20,000 each in recent weeks for failing to disclose injuries in compliance with league rules, the penalty for the first offense isn’t much more than, given the value of NFL franchises, a parking ticket.

If teams become repeat offenders, however, the price will go up.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello tells PFT that, if the Bills (as to defensive end Mario Williams), Redskins (as to quarterback Robert Griffin III), or Ravens (as to safety Ed Reed) commit further violations, the fines will increase.  Aiello also didn’t rule out the possibility of draft picks being stripped.

Aiello called it “unlikely,” but “multiple offenses of a very serious nature” could result in a team losing draft picks.

In the end, only the threat of lost draft picks will prompt teams to completely comply with the rules.  Fines will be viewed simply as a cost of doing business the way the teams want to do business — especially when the January 2012 comments from former Saints defensive coordinator Greg Williams make clear the fact that teams will target injured players for further injury.

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Jimmy Graham will be active tonight

New Orleans Saints v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

Tight end Jimmy Graham’s availability was due to be determined at game time.

It’s now game time.  (Well, close to it.)

Per a league source, Graham will be active.  He injured an ankle three weeks ago, and he missed last week’s game against the Bucs.

The game between the Saints and the Broncos gets rolling at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.  But, please, tune in for Football Night in America at 7:00 p.m. ET.

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Cowboys storm back to grab lead

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

The Cowboys looked like they were on the ropes when they fell behind 23-0 early in the second quarter against the Giants, but they may have been just borrowing the rope-a-dope strategy from Muhammad Ali.

They’ve scored 24 straight points to grab a 24-23 lead with time winding down in the third quarter. They’ve scored two touchdowns on Tony Romo rollouts since the start of the second half. The first was a run by Romo on fourth-and-goal from the foot of the end zone and the second looked like a mirror image until Romo flipped the ball to John Phillips in the end zone for another score.

The Giants defense has still been able to get pressure on Romo, but the Cowboys quarterback is standing up and making the throws he didn’t make in the first half. Eli Manning, meanwhile, is 3-of-10 for 27 yards since the Giants grabbed that 23-0 lead. We mentioned the Giants’ conservative offensive approach at halftime and it appears to be coming back to haunt them in the second half.

Of course, this could just be Manning’s latest variation on the thrilling comeback so we’ll keep watching to see how this seesaw affair plays out.

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Jennings recovers from Smith’s butt-kicking to make big play

Carolina Panthers v Chicago Bears Getty Images

Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith made plenty of plays Sunday, but Tim Jennings made the one that counted.

Jennings’ interception for a touchdown was a crucial turning point in the Bears’ 23-22 comeback win, and Smith took the blame.

“I slipped, sir. I slipped,” Smith said, via Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times. “The ball was thrown. He picked it. That what-if game, and this and that, that requires energy that I just don’t have right now to go through.”

Smith had seven catches for 118 yards Sunday, continuing a run of good games against the Bears (averaging 149 per game entering the day).

And since Jennings was on him all day, Smith’s praise was, shall we say, muted.

“That was the best play he made all game on me,” Smith said. “But it was a key moment in the game, changed the momentum. I know you want to pump him up. But I’ve been kicking his ass every time I come up here. And today wasn’t no different. Do you disagree?”

Jennings took the high road (which isn’t hard when Smith’s coming off a loss), showing respect to his 1-6 opponent.

“It’s very important when you got a Pro Bowl receiver like that’s been playing the game at a high level like that his whole career,” Jennings said. “He’s going to make some plays. But I had to have the mentality that I got to stay up and stay playing aggressive and minimize his playmaking ability.”

While they didn’t minimize Smith, they kept it from making a difference.

And that’s the difference in their responses.

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Cowboys edge closer before the half

Miles Austin, Chase Blackburn AP

The first 17 minutes of the game were a total nightmare for the Cowboys, but they’ve used the last 13 to draw close enough to the Cowboys to keep hope alive for a comeback.

Tony Romo was able to string together several passes in a row without an interception to set up a Felix Jones touchdown run and then hit Dez Bryant behind the Cowboys defense near the end of the half to put the team in position for a Dan Bailey field goal. That second drive could have led to more, but Romo was sacked by Jason Pierre-Paul before throwing incomplete under pressure on third down. They’re still within two scores at 23-10 and that’s pretty good given how awful things started out.

Romo was picked three times, including one JPP returned for a touchdown, and Bryant fumbled a punt to help the Giants to a 23-0 lead two minutes into the second quarter. The Giants defense has been opportunistic and the pass rush has been heavy since the very start of the game, contributing to Romo’s poor half and putting the Giants in front.

The game would be out of reach if they had done a bit more with the opportunities. The Giants play calling has been a bit conservative given the weapons at their disposal, there have been a few drops that kept the offense from putting up more points and Ahmad Bradshaw fumbled to kill another drive. Eli Manning is just 8-of-18 for 106 yards, a sign of how good the Cowboys defense has done given the tough circumstances they keep finding themselves in thanks to the offense.

It’s still a game thanks to that defense, although it is one the Giants could put out of reach by getting their offense in gear.

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Bush takes the high road on Cromartie

Miami Dolphins v New York Jets Getty Images

After Sunday’s game, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie said he didn’t lose his composure during a first-quarter incident with Dolphins running back Reggie Bush, telling reporters Cromartie called Bush a “punk” because, as Cromartie put it, “that’s exactly what he is.”

“We beat them fair and square,” Bush told PFT after the game by phone.  “They can say whatever they want.”

Bush, who hadn’t heard about Cromartie’s comments, laughed them off.  “Of course he lost his composure,” Bush said of Cromartie.  “He got flagged.”

Bush said that other players were saying things to him during the game, but that it didn’t bother him.  “Trash talking is part of the game,” Bush said.  “They beat us in our building, and now we beat them in their building.  That’s all that matters.”

Bush became a focal point in the days leading up to the game, based on comments from Jets players and coach Rex Ryan regarding an apparent desire to hurt Bush, who suffered a knee injury when the teams first played this season in Miami.  With cornerback Darrelle Revis suffering a torn ACL in that same game, Bush said, “What goes around comes around.”  That prompted Jets coach Rex Ryan to suggest that Bush should apologize for his remarks.

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Michael Vick: Reid “obviously” thinking about a quarterback change

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Questions about Eagles quarterback Michael Vick holding onto the starting job were inevitable after another dismal loss and Vick isn’t pretending they don’t exist.

Reuben Frank of reports that Vick said that coach Andy Reid is “obviously” thinking about making a change at quarterback and “if he makes that decision, I support it.” Frank got Vick to expound on his thoughts about potentially losing the job.

“It’s tough when you know everything is up in the balance, but that’s the decision that coach is thinking about making, and I’m going to fight until he says, ‘Come on out,’ and he takes me out of the game,” Vick said. “Despite everything that’s been said the last couple weeks, I still continue to put in the hard work and the effort and try to do everything I can to prepare and win football games, man. I can’t do it by myself. I would love to stay in there and finish what I started. It would mean the world to me. But, hey, that’s not my decision right now.”

Reid said that he will go back and “look at everything” when asked about making a change at quarterback. Vick was 21-of-35 for 191 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, a performance that didn’t feature any of the turnovers that plagued the first six games but still prompted Reid to say “he can play better.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that more change is coming to Philly, although we won’t find out about it Monday. The Eagles will close their facility with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the area, which may wind up amounting to a momentary delay to the end of the Vick era.

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