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Nicks, Cruz think the Steelers defensive backs get away with holding

Philadelphia Eagles v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

Wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks got the memo about using the media as a venue to plead for holding calls in advance of games, but someone with the Giants needs to work with them on their phrasing.

Unlike offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and defensive end Justin Tuck, Nicks and Cruz forgot to accuse Steelers defensive backs of getting away with murder when they went public with their feelings that the Steelers hold opposing receivers without penalty from the officials. Nicks said cornerback Ike Taylor was the main culprit in a secondary that grabs “a lot” and Cruz said he expects to be held on every play.

“It’s pretty blatant how they do it,” Cruz said, via Jenny Vrentas of the Newark Star-Ledger. “Some of it’s not being called, and some of it is, so we just have to be prepared to fight through it no matter what happens. And no matter what the down and distance is, expect to be held, expect to be grabbed and just continue to fight.”

Tuck said earlier this week that the Steelers offensive line was getting away with murder by frequently holding defensive players. Gilbride elicited a rather dramatic reaction from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh when he used the same phrase to call attention to the San Francisco defensive line a few weeks ago.

The Steelers are allowing the fewest passing yards per game of any team in the league thus far. They’ve also been penalized seven times per game, more than all but seven teams in the league, and they have been called for defensive holding nine times. That’s the most of any team in the league and the Giants would obviously like to see them add to their lead in that category this Sunday.

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Browns finalize four-year deal for Jamie Collins

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 10: Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens is tackled by outside linebacker Jamie Collins #51 of the Cleveland Browns in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 10, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Browns announced on Monday that they have signed linebacker Jamie Collins to a new four-year contract.

A CBS Sports report last week said the sides were close on a four-year deal. NFL Network reported Monday that the deal is worth $50 million, $26 million guaranteed.

The Browns acquired Collins in a trade before the trade deadline last season. The Patriots traded him figuring they wouldn’t be able to meet his salary demands, and Collins started all eight games he played with the Browns. He had two sacks and a forced fumble in those eight games.

The Browns knew they were going to have pay a steep price to retain Collins, and they hope this new deal that makes him one of the highest-paid linebackers in football will be an important step in their rebuilding process.

“We are going to be aggressive about acquiring talent, and when we had the opportunity to trade for Jamie back in October, it was done with the intent of him becoming a long-term part of our defense,” Browns executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown said in a team statement. “Jamie has shown throughout his NFL career that he is a very talented player with a rare skill set that allows him to impact games in a number of ways.”

Had Collins hit the open market in March, he likely would have been one of the most coveted free agents at any position. A second-round pick in 2013, Collins had been a starter since his second year with the Patriots before the trade. He has 12.5 sacks and five interceptions over his four-year career.

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Drew Brees’ Pro Bowl snub is rectified

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints runs out on the field prior to the game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on January 1, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

Saints quarterback Drew Brees should have made it to the Pro Bowl as part of the original roster. He didn’t. He now has.

The team has announced that Brees will replace Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the Pro Bowl. Ryan has a date with a slightly bigger game in Houston one week later.

It will be the 10th trip to the Pro Bowl for Brees and his ninth with the Saints. He generated more than 5,200 passing yards in 2017, the fifth time in his career he has broken that barrier. (There have been only four other 5,000-yard seasons in league history.) Brees also set an NFL record with 471 completions.

Brees has been performing at a high level for so long that his talents often get taken for granted. In a league that doesn’t have nearly enough great quarterbacks, the quarterback who recently turned 38 definitely will be missed when he’s gone.

The other NFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks are Kirk Cousins (who has replaced Aaron Rodgers) and Dak Prescott.

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Pacman Jones to cop: “I hope you die . . . You’re gonna be out of a job”

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 09:  Adam Jones #24 of the Cincinnati Bengals at AT&T Stadium on October 9, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

Bengals cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones unleashed profane tirade on the Cincinnati police officer who arrested him on charges of obstructing official business, disorderly conduct, and assault three weeks ago.

Video from the officer’s car, obtained by TMZ, show Jones repeatedly calling the officer “a b–tch a– ni—-” and seeming to try to intimidate the officer.

“I hope you die tomorrow,” Jones said. “You’re gonna be out of a job tomorrow.”

The officer is not out of a job, but Jones might be soon. The arrest in and of itself was a strike against Jones, who has a significant history of off-field trouble. But when a player’s bad act is caught on video, it makes it much harder for a team to ignore.

There’s also the reality that Jones will turn 34 this year and has a $6.3 million base salary that the Bengals can clear off their books by cutting him. Although Jones started all 16 games in 2016, the Bengals may want to cut him purely for reasons related to age and the salary cap.

So regardless of how the legal case against Jones plays out, it wouldn’t be surprising if he has played his last game in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Police Department probably wouldn’t mind that.

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Stephon Gilmore lands in Pro Bowl

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 11:   Stephon Gilmore #24 of the Buffalo Bills can't make an interception thrown by  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half at New Era Field on December 11, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Bills would like to get all 53 players to a postseason game. They’ll have to settle for roughly 10 percent of that amount playing in the Pro Bowl.

Cornerback Stephon Gillmore has made it to the Pro Bowl, giving the Bills five Pro Bowlers. It’s the most they’ve had since 1998, when the Bills had six.

It’s unclear who Gilmore is replacing; the announcement from the team doesn’t say so. It’s also possible that he’s the second choice behind Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, who won’t be available to attend due to the team qualifying for the Super Bowl.

The AFC cornerbacks are Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Casey Hayward, and Chris Harris, Jr.

Gilmore would be wise to find a way out of the game. He’s due to become a free agent in March, and it makes no sense to risk injury as a major payday awaits.

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LeGarrette Blount: Tom Brady is the best ever, I don’t see an argument

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: LeGarrette Blount #29 and Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrate against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

Tom Brady: Great quarterback, or the greatest quarterback? To LeGarrette Blount, the answer is clear.

After Brady led the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl, his seventh as their starting quarterback, Blount told reporters in the Patriots’ locker room that he can’t think of any reason anyone would call any other quarterback better.

“He’s the greatest quarterback of all time. People can argue, but I don’t see an argument. He piles on stats and wins and everything on his resume. Obviously he’s going to be a first-ballot hall of famer. As long as you have that guy on your team . . . we’re going to always have a chance,” Blount said.

There are, of course, arguments. There are always arguments when sports fans debate who’s the greatest. Some might choose Otto Graham or Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana or Peyton Manning over Brady.

But Brady is making a stronger and stronger case, at an age when most players are washed up. And against the Falcons, Brady can make his case stronger still. He can become the first quarterback with five Super Bowl rings and the first player to win four Super Bowl MVPs, and he can add to his all-time Super Bowl records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. With each game he’s bolstering his already strong argument.

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Kyle Shanahan set for second meeting with 49ers on Saturday

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan celebrates with Matt Ryan #2 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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Falcons will spend this week starting their preparations for Super Bowl LI against the Patriots and they’ll be heading to Houston on Sunday, but offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will squeeze in a little business related to another team on Saturday.

By all accounts, Shanahan is the man the 49ers want to be their next head coach and Falcons coach Dan Quinn said at Monday’s press conference that Shanahan will be free to speak with the team on Saturday. It will be Shanahan’s second interview with the 49ers.

This conversation is also expected to include candidates for the team’s General Manager job. Vikings assistant G.M. George Paton and Cardinals vice president of player personnel are believed to be the two candidates still in the running for the job.

With the Falcons playing in the Super Bowl, the 49ers obviously won’t be able to hire him as their head coach until after the game comes to an end on February 5. The way Atlanta’s offense played during their run to the Super Bowl certainly makes that wait a bit easier to take.

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T.J. Lang pulls out of Pro Bowl, Josh Sitton takes his place

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 19: Josh Sitton #71 of the Chicago Bears moves to block Nigel Bradham #53 of the Philadelphia Eagles at Soldier Field on September 19, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Eagles defeated hte Bears 29-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang spent five seasons as the starting tandem of guards for the Packers before the run ended with Sitton’s release ahead of the start of the 2016 season.

Sitton landed in Chicago shortly after being released, where he started 12 games for the Bears and garnered enough votes in the Pro Bowl process to be in position to replace an NFC guard who dropped out of the game. Sitton got that call on Monday and he’ll be replacing Lang.

Lang left Sunday’s NFC Championship Game loss to the Falcons after aggravating a foot injury. He’s also been dealing with a hip injury and will have arthroscopic surgery on Friday to deal with it. Lang is headed for free agency and said after the loss that he wants to remain in Green Bay.

Sitton won’t be able to reunite with Lang in Orlando, but he will get a chance to play with Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari again as Bakhtiari was also named as an injury replacement on Monday.

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Andy Dalton replaces Tom Brady in Pro Bowl

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 29:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals throws a pass during the third quarter of the game against the Miami Dolphins at Paul Brown Stadium on September 29, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images) Getty Images

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is preparing for the Super Bowl, so Brady is being replaced in the Pro Bowl by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.

The Pro Bowl will be played this Sunday, Jan. 29, in Orlando.

Dalton also went to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2014. His call-up comes after a season in which he threw for 4,206 yards, the second-most in Bengals history behind his 4,923 in 2013.

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Add David Bakhtiari to the Pro Bowl roster

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: David Bakhtiari #69 of the Green Bay Packers cools off during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on September 11, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Getty Images

The changes keep on coming to the rosters for this week’s Pro Bowl in Orlando.

Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari is the latest addition to the fun. He was announced as the replacement for Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, who has pulled out of the game because of an injury.

Bakhtiari started all 19 games that the Packers played this season and has missed only three games over his four years in Green Bay. He was named to the All-Pro second-team by the Associated Press, finishing behind Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith but ahead of the guy he’s replacing on the NFC roster.

It’s the first time Bakhtiari has been named to the Pro Bowl and he is the first Packers tackle to be selected for the game since Chad Clifton in 2010.

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Ladarius Green hopes next season “works out a lot better”

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04:  Ladarius Green #89 of the Pittsburgh Steelers cannot come up with a pass while being defended by Eli Apple #24 of the New York Giants in the second half during the game at Heinz Field on December 4, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) Getty Images

The 2016 season didn’t go as hoped for Steelers tight end Ladarius Green as it started and ended with injuries, but he said on Monday that he wants to be back in Pittsburgh for another chance next season.

Green, who signed with the Steelers last offseason, missed eight games while recovering from offseason ankle surgery to open the season and he missed the final five games with a concussion, which made it two straight years with brain injuries for the tight end. There were reports that lingering issues from the 2015 concussion also contributed to his early absence, but Green said that the ankle was the only issue and said Monday that he is ready to start working on a more positive outcome the next time around.

“Frustrating season but everybody has one. I hope it’s the only one I have,” Green said, via ESPN.com. “I’m going to go train as soon as I get home, and hopefully next season works out a lot better.”

Green had 18 catches for 304 yards and a touchdown in the six games he did play and seemed to fill a role in the Steelers passing game. That could be a boost in 2017, but Green will have to be healthy enough to provide it.

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Patriots open as three-point favorites to win the Super Bowl

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  New England Patriots fans cheer during the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

Vegas is expecting the Patriots to win a close and high-scoring Super Bowl.

New England is a three-point favorite over Atlanta, and the over-under is set at 58.5, which would suggest the oddsmakers are expecting a final score in the neighborhood of Patriots 31, Falcons 28.

That over-under is the highest in Super Bowl history, topping the 57 for Saints-Colts in 2010. The under was the winning bet in that game, as the Saints won 31-17.

This is the fifth time the Patriots have been favored to win in their seven Super Bowls during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, and they’ve never covered as favorites: They were favored by seven points to beat both the Panthers and the Eagles and won both of those games by three, and they were favored by 12 and 2.5 points in their two upset losses to the Giants. The Patriots were 14-point underdogs when they upset the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and the line was a pick ’em when they beat the Seahawks two years ago.

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Johnny Manziel offers advice to Donald Trump, of course

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23:  (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump reads the first of three Executive Orders he will sign in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, January 23, 2017.  This one concerned the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The others will be a US Government hiring freeze for all departments but the military, and "Mexico City" which bans federal funding of abortions overseas.   (Photo by Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images) Getty Images

Welcome to 2017.

The President of the United States just got some advice on how to handle the pressure of social media from an unlikely source — former Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Manziel tweeted out this afternoon a suggestion that perhaps Donald Trump should minimize his social media focus.

Trump has always used his Twitter account like a cudgel, taking daily swipes at his enemies and doubters. Of course, he’s also the most powerful man in the free world, despite the video released during the campaign in which he bragged he could put his hands on women in any way he pleased because he was famous.

Manziel wasn’t so lucky, as the Browns terminated his contract after allegations of domestic violence from a former girlfriend in Texas (which led to a plea bargain and a restraining order). Then again, there was also the small matter of the NFL suspension, the stint in rehab, and the not being good at football.

Manziel admitted recently he was “lost in the sauce,” and hopes to come back in to the league if he can convince anyone he can be held accountable.

That’s probably a long shot.

Then again . . . .

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Joe Thomas is rooting for the Patriots, for one specific reason

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 19: Offensive tackle, Joe Thomas #73 of the Cleveland Browns poses for a portrait at the 2007 NFL Players Rookie Premiere on May 19, 2007 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Browns have never been to the Super Bowl, and they probably won’t be during the remaining time tackle Joe Thomas has with the team. Thus, his interest in the NFL’s annual championship game will come from other factors.

Specifically, Thomas wants to see what would be one of the most awkward moments since Commissioner Pete Rozelle handed a Lombardi Trophy to Raiders owner Al Davis.

“As much as I’d like to see my buddy [Alex Mack] win a Super Bowl, I would sure love to see [Commissioner Roger Goodell] have to hand a SB trophy to [Tom] Brady!” Thomas tweeted.

The comment could make Patriots fans pine more openly for Thomas to be traded to New England. Until he’s an official member of the team, it’s safe to say he’ll be an honorary Patriot.

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Dez Bryant named to Pro Bowl in Julio Jones’ spot

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 25:  Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on before a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears at AT&T Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

Dez Bryant had a down year, by his own standards.

But he’s still a Pro Bowler.

The Cowboys wide receiver was named as a replacement to the all-star game, in the place of the Falcons star.

Bryant missed three games with injuries and had 50 receptions for 796 yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers are well off his usual production, as the Cowboys offense evolved this year.

While his numbers were always better with Tony Romo, Bryant never made any noise about his diminished stats as quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott led them to the top seed in the NFC this year.

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Belichick explains defensive improvement in simple terms

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on prior to the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

For much of the 2016 season, the defense seemed to be a major weakness for the Patriots. Over time, however, the defense steadily improved.

On Monday, reporters asked coach Bill Belichick to explain the biggest factor for this development.

“Preparation, practice, execution,” Belichick said. “There’s no magic wand. You’ve just got to go out there and, look, there are five eligible receivers. Usually we get at least four of them out [running pass patterns]. In man-to-man coverage you’ve got to cover them. We’ve got to rush the passer, contain the quarterback, stop the run.

“Zone coverage; it’s a short throw. You’ve got to be on the receivers tight or a good quarterback can get the ball into those windows. Again, good execution of zone coverage, getting to the receivers, filling up those spaces so it’s hard to throw the ball in there. It really just comes down to playing good team defense in both the running game and the passing game and on the goal line, which gets into a whole new set of defensive calls and techniques. We’ve had a couple of big stops down there, too, over the course of the year.”

More specific improvement occurred later in the year, as the stakes of the games increased.

“[A]s the season goes on and you get into games like we’ve had the last few weeks, Miami was a playoff team; that was kind of like a playoff game,” Belichick said. “Baltimore, Denver were those big kind of games at the end of the season. Then the last two we’ve had — I think that’s where teams, players, units, I mean, that’s where those levels really get identified because you’re playing against the very best teams, the very highest level of competition. Some of that really remains to be determined in this year.”

Part of the challenge for the Patriots defense was to adjust to lineup changes, including most notably the in-season trade of linebacker Jamie Collins.

“We made some changes during the year,” Belichick said. “We always make changes. It’s a process you go through. You put players in certain situations and certain groupings together and some work better than others, or maybe you see more potential in a certain player or group of players or combination of players than others, and you decide to move forward more with that or maybe you do it less because you don’t feel as good about it or players develop or improve or whatever it is and it’s just an ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

It also doesn’t happen automatically.

“There’s no switch that you can flip,” he said. “It comes through a lot of hard work, a lot of meetings, a lot of communication on how we’re going to do things and then a lot of on-the-field execution at actually doing them at a good competitive level so that we can gain confidence in each other as a unit as to how that’s going to happen in a live game situation. Working hard, continuing to improve and guys taking whatever opportunities they get and either moving forward with it or possibly somebody else getting an opportunity and moving ahead of a player at a point in the season. That’s just a competitive situation. We’re going to play the best players and basically everybody will get a chance to do it somewhere along the line, and the players that play the best will play more and the players that don’t do it as well need to improve and need to change their playing time status or they’ll continue to not get the playing time behind somebody else who is performing better.”

These are simple, obvious concepts, and it’s refreshing to hear one of the most successful coaches in league history underscore the importance of the meat-and-potatoes aspect of playing defense. The specific schemes and the knowledge regarding what an offense may do are critical to the success of a defense, but Belichick has accurately explained some of the key aspects of building the foundation of a great defense.

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