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PFT’s Week Nine picks

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The good news last week?  MDS gained only one game on me.  The bad news?  MDS got only seven of the 14 games right.

Yep, that 12-1 performance from yours truly in Week Seven is now the chunk of filet between a moldy pair of 6-8 slices of counterfeit Wonder bread.

At one point, it was looking disastrous.  Thanks to the Giants, Broncos, and 49ers, a nauseating 3-8 start was salvaged.  Sort of.

This week, we again disagree on only one game.  And it all comes down to Monday night.

For the year, I’m now 73-45, and MDS is 69-49.

Chiefs at Chargers

MDS’s take: Matt Cassel is back as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback, and the result will be more or less the same as the first time Cassel started against the Chargers this year: He’ll throw multiple interceptions and the Chiefs will lose.

MDS’s pick: Chargers 27, Chiefs 13.

Florio’s take:  The Chargers already have beaten the Chiefs in Kansas City.  Then again, who hasn’t?  Norv Turner’s week-to-week employment lasts at least another week.

Florio’s pick:  Chargers 27, Chiefs 16.

Broncos at Bengals

MDS’s take: The Bengals’ defense has been a mess this season, and Peyton Manning is getting better every week. Manning will throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns and the Broncos will cruise.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 31, Bengals 17.

Florio’s take:  The schedule softens for a Denver team that looks to be much better than the one that made it to the final eight a year ago.  The Bengals, on the other hand, are starting a rough patch that will make a rough season even rougher.  Roughly speaking.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 31, Bengals 17.

Ravens at Browns

MDS’s take: I’m tempted to pick the upset here, as the Ravens have struggled to put teams away while the Browns have played competitive football even in defeat. But while the Browns will keep this one close, the Ravens will manage to hold them off.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 23, Browns 21.

Florio’s take:  Cleveland’s old team returns to town, nearly 17 years to the day after Cleveland’s old team declared its intention to leave.  The Browns will make it interesting, but the Ravens know they need to step it up now in order to hold off the Steelers, who are making their move and who face the Ravens twice in three weeks, starting later this month.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 20, Browns 14.

Cardinals at Packers

MDS’s take: This looks to me like the easiest pick on the board. Aaron Rodgers will have another big game, Clay Matthews will have a couple sacks, and the reeling Cardinals will lose their fifth straight.

MDS’s pick: Packers 31, Cardinals 12.

Florio’s take:  After nearly losing to the Jags, the Packers will be on guard for a Cardinals team that hits the road on a short week after a Monday night mess.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 35, Cardinals 20.

Bills at Texans

MDS’s take: Speaking of easy games to pick, there’s no way the Bills’ defense slows down Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Co. I do think C.J. Spiller could have a big game against the Texans’ run defense, but the Bills’ offense won’t be able to keep up the scoring pace.

MDS’s pick: Texans 35, Bills 21.

Florio’s take:  $100 million can buy a lot of Super Bowl rings.  That may be the only way Mario Williams ever gets one.

Florio’s pick:  Texans 30, Bills 17.

Dolphins at Colts

MDS’s take: If the playoffs started today, these two teams would earn the two AFC wild card berths. Who saw that coming before the season? I look for the Dolphins to take a big step toward the playoffs with a big win in Indianapolis, and I expect a lot of people to be talking about Joe Philbin as a coach of the year candidate after his team gets its biggest win of the season.

MDS’s pick: Dolphins 27, Colts 14.

Florio’s take:  A pair of top-ten quarterbacks have winning records through eight weeks, and neither has a III at the end of his name.  Despite III wins in a row, the Dolphins remain underrated.  Will they still be if they’re VIII-III when hosting the Pats?

Florio’s pick:  Dolphins 23, Colts 20.

Lions at Jaguars

MDS’s take: The Lions’ m.o. is the same every week: Start slowly and get better as the game goes on. Some games, like last week against the Seahawks, that results in a last-minute come-from-behind win. Other games, like two weeks ago against the Bears, that results in a last-minute touchdown followed by a failed onside kick and a loss. So which will it be this week? I’m betting neither. The Lions have finally found an opponent they can beat from pillar to post and will win easily in Jacksonville.

MDS’s pick: Lions 27, Jaguars 10.

Florio’s take:  With the Jaguars outscored 95-20 at home at home this season and the Lions beginning to show some signs of life, this is precisely the kind of game that Jacksonville should win.  I’ll take my chances.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 28, Jaguars 17.

Bears at Titans

MDS’s take: The Bears’ defense will make life miserable for Matt Hasselbeck and hold Chris Johnson to less than 20 yards. Chicago wins this big.

MDS’s pick: Bears 27, Titans 13.

Florio’s take:  It’s tempting to take the Titans, who have played well lately.  Especially since the Bears were sluggish at best against the Panthers.  But a good team finds a way to win games it seems to be trying to lose.  On Sunday, the Bears will be less complacent.

Florio’s pick:  Bears 27, Titans 17.

Panthers at Redskins

MDS’s take: In a game with all eyes on Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, I like Redskins running back Alfred Morris to steal the show with a big game against a suspect Panthers run defense.

MDS’s pick: Redskins 24, Panthers 14.

Florio’s take:  The quarterbacks should put their respective Heisman Trophies on the line for this one.  If they do, Robert Griffin III will have bookends.

Florio’s pick:  Redskins 33, Panthers 23.

Buccaneers at Raiders

MDS’s take: The Raiders are actually playing some surprisingly good football lately, to the point where I wouldn’t rule out a run at an AFC playoff spot. Carson Palmer will put a lot of points on the board as the Raiders win their third straight game.

MDS’s pick: Raiders 34, Buccaneers 20.

Florio’s take:  This rematch of Super Bowl XXXVII will turn out a little bit better for the Silver and Black, which surprisingly remain in striking distance for a playoff berth.

Florio’s pick:  Raiders 27, Buccaneers 20.

Vikings at Seahawks

MDS’s take: Both the Vikings and the Seahawks are coming off disappointing Week Eight performances, but I have a lot more faith in Seattle’s ability to turn things around at home.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 23, Vikings 16.

Florio’s take:  The Vikings were exposed last week against the Bucs, and offensive coordinator Bill Mugrave could be exposed to unemployment if he doesn’t get the team back on track.  Good luck with that in Seattle, against that defense.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 20, Vikings 9.

Steelers at Giants

MDS’s take: The Steelers have played well at home and badly on the road this season, and that will continue against the Giants, who will win their fifth in a row.

MDS’s pick: Giants 28, Steelers 17.

Florio’s take:  It’s a simple formula in New York.  Play great against great teams.  Play not-so-great against not-so-great teams.  The Steelers currently fall closer to the former category.

Florio’s pick:  Giants 35, Steelers 27.

Cowboys at Falcons

MDS’s take: Despite the Falcons’ 7-0 record and the Cowboys’ 3-4 record, I see this as a close game.  The Cowboys are playing competitive football and the Falcons have had a tendency to let weaker teams hang around. But the end result will be something we’ve already seen a couple times this season.  Dallas failing to pull it out in the end.

MDS’s pick: Falcons 24, Cowboys 21.

Florio’s take:  If the Cowboys spot the Falcons 23 points, the Falcons won’t let them back into it.  And with their only non-flex visit to Sunday Night Football, the Falcons aren’t about to stumble against an inferior team.

Florio’s pick:  Falcons 31, Cowboys 20.

Eagles at Saints

MDS’s take: The Saints have probably already run out of chances to turn their season around, and the Eagles are rapidly running out of chances, too. But the Saints’ defense is so weak that Michael Vick can’t help but have a better game on Monday night, and the Eagles will win in New Orleans.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 31, Saints 21.

Florio’s take:  For a team that may not be making it to the playoffs, delivering a knockout punch to the Eagles on national TV in the Superdome could be the next best thing.  Maybe a certain T-shirt will be making another appearance; at least ESPN isn’t regulated by the FCC.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 27, Eagles 24.

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Who wins Super Bowl LI?

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Super Bowl participants have been locked and loaded. In 14 days, the Patriots and Falcons will square off.

So let’s start the prognostication process now: Who wins the game?

Answer below, battle it out in the comments, and then tune in for Monday’s PFT Live, which will feature visits from Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy and Patriots fanboy (not really, but I like to accuse him of it) Tom Curran of CSN New England.

PFT Live begins at 6:00 a.m. on NBC Sports Radio, and the simulcast starts at 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

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Patriots advance to Super Bowl LI to face Falcons

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

Roger Goodell kept Tom Brady off the field for the first four games of the season.

Nothing was keeping Brady from finishing it, and giving himself a chance to accept another trophy from the NFL commissioner in two weeks.

The Patriots quarterback was clinical as his team crushed the Steelers 36-17, setting up a Super Bowl LI showdown with the Falcons in Houston two weeks from today.

Brady was 34-of-42 passing for 384 yards and three scores. It was his ninth career three-touchdown performance in the postseason, tying Joe Montana for the most in that category. And that underscores the kind of historic company he’s keeping, as he leads the Patriots to their ninth Super Bowl appearance.

It also sets the stage for plenty of talk about the four-game Deflategate suspension that delayed the start of his season, but the Patriots went 3-1 during that stretch with the kind of all-hands effort as they displayed Sunday night.

Offensively, wide receiver Chris Hogan was brilliant, with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

But the league’s best scoring defense also kept the Steelers from doing much of anything, making plays at critical junctures and forcing a pair of turnovers.

The Steelers were fairly helpless once running back Le’Veon Bell left with a groin injury early. He tried coming back for a play, but it wasn’t working, and without him, neither did their offense. With Bell offering just 20 yards on six carries, the rest of the Patriots’ attention went to slowing Antonio Brown, who will not be live-streaming any celebrations in the locker room tonight.

Brown finished with seven catches for 77 yards (cosmetic yards late padded that number), and the rest of the Steelers couldn’t overcome the attention.

Which means Brady and the Patriots will get plenty for the next two weeks, as they chase a fifth title.

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Source: Saints never spoke to Colts about Sean Payton

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24:  Head coach Sean Payton is seen prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Colts have denied it on the record, and the Saints eventually may do the same.

For now, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that no one from the Saints at any time has ever spoken to the Colts, directly or indirectly, about a deal for coach Sean Payton.

Colts COO Pete Ward has denied talking to the Saints, but Ward has said that a “Payton associate” called the Colts to gauge interest in the possibility of obtaining Payton by compensating the Saints.

Payton remains under contract with the Saints and there’s no indication that either side plans to change that reality, or that any team plans to try to secure the rights to Payton.

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Aaron Rodgers: We need to reload, can take “big step” this offseason

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers walks off the field after being defeated by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers’ hot streak came to an end in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon and that means quarterback Aaron Rodgers is already thinking about the future.

Rodgers was asked if he felt like he was running short on chances to win another Super Bowl, which the quarterback said wasn’t the case while adding that they have to “make sure we’re going all-in every year to win” a title. Rodgers said he thinks the team “can take a big step this offseason,” but that the changes didn’t need to be major ones in order for that to happen.

“We need to reload,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think we need to rebuild. We need to reload. We’ve got a lot of players who are young who are big contributors for us. We just need to reload a little bit this offseason. I think we had a lot of great contributions this season from guys we didn’t really expect. Geronimo Allison had a very big year for us. Aaron Ripkowski was fantastic. Jared Cook, I think, needs to be near the top of the priority list, the way he played this year. And the offensive line, keeping those guys together was a big part of our success.”

Cook was signed last offseason and provided a good target for Rodgers when healthy. The quarterback’s plug probably won’t hurt the tight end’s chances of sticking around for a second year in Green Bay.

Guard T.J. Lang and center J.C. Tretter are also free agents, which may account for Rodgers’ interest in keeping the offensive line together. There might be more desire for new faces at running back and in the secondary, although Cook represented the rare foray into veteran free agency for General Manager Ted Thompson so we’ll have to see if they’ll go that route as part of the reloading plan.

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Patriots pulling away from Steelers in third quarter

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a 1-yard rushing touchdown by LeGarrette Blount #29 (not pictured) during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers may not have had much margin for error anyway.

But when they made mistakes, the Patriots quickly made them pay.

New England sandwiched touchdowns around a Steelers fumble, and have a 33-9 lead over the Steelers in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers were already in trouble following LeGarrette Blount’s touchdown run, but when linebacker Rob Ninkovich collected Steelers wideout Eli Rogers‘ fumble, it didn’t take long to cost them.

Four plays later, Tom Brady found Julian Edelman for a touchdown, and only a missed extra point has marred this one.

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Julio Jones wasn’t slowed by toe injury on Sunday

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after defeating the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) Getty Images

Before Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reported that Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has been dealing with three injuries to his foot — two to a toe and one in the middle of the foot — in recent weeks.

Those injuries kept Jones from practicing twice in the week leading up to the matchup with the Packers, but they weren’t any trouble at all during the game. Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the win, including a 73-yarder that pretty much ended any remaining suspense a minute into the second half. The big day moved him into some rarified postseason air.

Jones joined Jerry Rice and Fred Biletnikoff as one of only three players in history to reach at least 180 receiving yards in more than one playoff game. Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to the 49ers in the NFC title game four years ago.

“He never ceases to surprise us because he makes the extraordinary plays seem ordinary,” coach Dan Quinn said after the game. “That’s not a very typical thing to do. He’s a heckuva competitor.”

Jones said his foot felt OK after the game. He’ll get two weeks to keep it rested in hopes of adding to the rich playoff history he’s already assembled.

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Colts deny Sean Payton report

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24:  Head coach Sean Payton is seen prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Colts have moved quickly to throw water on the report that they had back-channel talks with the Saints about a possible deal for coach Sean Payton.

Colts COO Pete Ward has gone on the record with multiple outlets to dispute the report. Via Mike Chappell of FOX 59/CBS 4 in Indianapolis, Ward called the report from Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports “totally fictitious.”

Ward added that he received a call from a Payton associate a couple of weeks ago inquiring as to whether the team had interest in a deal. Ward said, “No.” And that was that.

Ward, who was identified La Canfora as the person who spoke to the Saints on behalf of the Colts, called La Canfora after the report was published. It’s unclear whether La Canfora called Ward before publishing the report; nevertheless, La Canfora has revised his report to include Ward’s position. However, the report has not been revised to remove the claim that Ward actually negotiated with the Saints.

The end result is that the report (and La Canfora’s Twitter feed) characterizes the call from Ward as confirmation that something happened regarding the Colts and the Saints while glossing over the fact that Ward, who presumably called La Canfora because Ward was upset with the report, disputed that the Colts ever spoke to the Saints. (Indeed, the headline still declares that the two teams talked, even though Ward has denied it.)

Lost in the sauce (trademarked) is the perception/reality that a “Payton associate” called the Colts to gauge interest in doing a deal with the Saints. That would have been a pretty compelling “Sunday splash” item from La Canfora, if he hadn’t already locked in to the report that the Colts have gone on the record to debunk.

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Patriots catch a break on review, extend lead

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches from the sideline during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) AP

The Patriots have extended their lead over the Steelers, and they appear to have been fortunate to be able to kick a field goal.

A Tom Brady sneak attempt for a first down appeared to include him losing the ball, and Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave came out of the pile with the ball.

But the officials on the field ruled Brady down by contact, and the league backed them, or at least said there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call. NFL vice president of officiating was quick to tweet out support for his guys.

As a result, the Patriots were able to extend the drive and get a 47-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, giving them a 20-9 lead in the third quarter. And the Steelers lost a timeout they might need later by losing the challenge.

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Jonathan Kraft: AFC title game loss might have been Ryan Grigson’s pinnacle

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 16: General manager Ryan Grigson of the Indianapolis Colts looks on during a rookie minicamp at the team complex on May 16, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson was fired on Saturday and he was on the receiving end of a shot from Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on Sunday.

During a pregame appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Kraft was asked about Grigson’s dismissal and he mentioned the AFC title game two years ago as being the moment when everything started going downhill for the former G.M. in Indianapolis.

“I don’t, you’d have to ask Jim Irsay about it,” Kraft said, via the Boston Herald. “He’d be the one to ask. That game might have been Ryan’s pinnacle, I don’t know. Jimmy can talk about what’s going on with the Colts. We’re fortunately playing football today.”

In addition to being the last time the Colts played a postseason game, that 45-7 Patriots win was also the game that introduced Deflategate to the national lexicon. Grigson sent an email to the league about suspicions regarding the intentional deflation of balls before the game and complained to league officials during the game as well.

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Patriots up 17-9 at halftime, thanks to Chris Hogan

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with wide receiver Chris Hogan (15) after a touchdown pass during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) AP

The Steelers have the name-brand talent on offense, but the star of the AFC Championship Game so far is a guy the Bills didn’t want to keep this offseason.

Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan has two touchdowns so far, and the Patriots have a 17-9 halftime lead.

It seems like a good time to point out that the Bills could have kept Hogan this offseason, but didn’t want to match the three-year, $12 million deal the Patriots offered the restricted free agent.

All he’s done so far is catch seven passes for 117 yards and two scores, the second on a wide-open flea flicker in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, the Steelers appear to be without Le’Veon Bell, after he was declared questionable with a left groin injury. He came back in for one play, but immediately limped back to the sideline. He has 20 yards on six carries so far, as the Patriots have kept the Steelers’ big-play threats from hurting them.

Antonio Brown has just three catches for 26 yards so far, as the Patriots have forced Ben Roethlisberger to spread the ball around.

They also closed with a disappointing stretch to end the half, with an apparent touchdown overturned on review, followed by a pair of negative-yardage runs by DeAngelo Williams and an incomplete pass, forcing them to settle for a field goal.

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Dan Quinn: Shift took place after loss to Kansas City

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons has gatorade dumped on him by his team late in the game against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Falcons played a wild game against the Chiefs in Week 13 of the regular season that saw them score 12 straight points in the fourth quarter to grab a one-point lead with over four minutes to play.

They would wind up losing by one after Chiefs safety Eric Berry intercepted Matt Ryan on the two-point try and returned it for two Kansas City points. It was a painful loss at the time, but coach Dan Quinn credited it with kicking his team to a higher level of play that helped catapult them into Super Bowl LI. They would win 42-14 in Los Angeles the next week and they have scored at least 33 points every week while winning their last six games by an average of over 19 points.

“We had a difficult loss against Kansas City and that was probably the first shift for us before we went out to L.A. as a team. We knew we could play better,” Quinn said during his postgame press conference. “The unconditional support for one another, our intent took it up a notch. I thought another shift took place our first playoff bye week. We didn’t just kinda hang around. We had real intent on getting better and finding an edge. I thought that carried over into this week.”

Quinn said his experience as a defensive coordinator hasn’t given him any empathy for coaches who have to try to slow down the Falcons offense and the defense has proven increasingly adept at making sure the Falcons stay up once they get up each week. If they kick things up another level before kickoff on February 5, it’s going to be tough on both sides of the ball for the Patriots or Steelers.

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Report: Saints, Colts talked Sean Payton deal

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints looks on during the second half against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on January 1, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

Manning isn’t the only Peyton the Colts wanted to hire, apparently.

The Colts also explored via back channels the possibility of obtaining the services of coach Sean Payton from the Saints, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. The two teams were unable to strike a deal regarding the compensation the Saints would receive for Payton’s services.

Payton also would have been a factor in the discussions, since the procedure would have initially required the Colts and Saints to have a tentative deal in place regarding compensation before the Colts would have had direct talks with Payton as to: (1) whether he wants to coach the Colts; and (2) what it would take to get a deal done with Indianapolis.

Many in the media erroneously describe the situation as a “trade.” The transaction can’t occur without the consent of the coach, and the coach’s current contract is torn up as part of the process and replaced with a brand new deal.

If the Colts and Saints had struck a tentative arrangement, it would have been imperative for both sides to keep things quiet until the Colts fired G.M. Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano and complied with the Rooney Rule as to both positions. Per the report, Payton would have brought Jeff Ireland with him from New Orleans to serve as G.M.

The fact that the Saints were willing to consider parting ways with Payton and that, apparently, Payton was willing to go will do nothing to end the annual “Sean Payton Could Be Leaving The Saints” reports. With Saints quarterback Drew Brees under contract for only one more year and taking the position that there won’t be an extension, maybe this will raw the year when the reports are finally right.

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Steelers close the gap, without Le’Veon Bell

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts prior to the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers are making a bit of a run, and they’re doing it without their best runner.

Le’Veon Bell left the game early in the second quarter and hasn’t returned, and the Steelers have announced he’s questionable to return with a left groin injury.

They’re fortunate they have a talented backup in DeAngelo Williams, and the veteran just ran for a touchdown which cut the gap to 10-6. Kicker Chris Boswell missed the extra point, which could cause the Steelers to be more aggressive going for two later in the game.

Williams has four carries for 25 yards, after Bell gained 18 on his first five tries. While they’d obviously rather have their regular in there, Williams is keeping them close, and his decisive style might be a better fit than Bell’s stop-and-go patience.

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Chris Hogan puts the Patriots up 10-0

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 24: Chris Hogan #15 of the New England Patriots reacts during the first half against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

He’s not Rob Gronkowski, but Chris Hogan has created quite a niche for himself in New England.

He just scored to put the Patriots up 10-0 on the Steelers late in the first, dominating a drive.

Hogan caught four passes for 57 yards, including the 16-yard touchdown which capped a quick, effective drive.

He doesn’t fall into the diminutive Julian Edelman/Wes Welker profile the Patriots have had such success with over the years, and they’re using him on some of the same seam routes that have been so productive when their All-Pro tight end was healthy.

Tom Brady’s already 10-of-12 for 128 yards so far, an efficient start as he’s been willing to go no-huddle to keep the Steelers off balance.

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Mike McCarthy: We ran into a buzzsaw

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers walks off the field after being defeated by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn’t see Sunday’s NFC Championship Game much differently than anyone else who watched the Falcons roll to Super Bowl LI with a 44-21 win.

McCarthy noted the rough start that saw the Packers miss a field goal and lose a fumble in the end zone on their first two drives while the Falcons were scoring on their first three possessions. That left the Packers down 17-0 and McCarthy said that’s “a game you don’t want to play” on the road against a team as good as the Falcons.

We ran into a buzzsaw,” McCarthy said during his postgame press conference. “…We couldn’t overcome the pace that these guys were playing. They played lights out and it got away from us.”

McCarthy was asked about injuries taking a toll and he admitted they did, but the overall theme of the press conference was the same as the overall theme of the game. The Falcons were just too much for the Packers to handle across the board on Sunday.

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