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NFL morning after: Luck has the Colts on the way to the playoffs

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Luck looks for a receiver against the Miami Dolphins during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Indianapolis Reuters

Andrew Luck was supposed to be this good. Just not this soon.

Everyone knew long before this year’s NFL draft that Luck would be the first overall pick, and everyone figured that Luck would eventually become a good franchise quarterback and lead the Indianapolis Colts back from last year’s disastrous 2-14 season without Peyton Manning and into the playoffs again. But did anyone really think Luck could lead the Colts to the playoffs as a rookie?

That’s what Luck has a real chance of doing after the Colts’ win on Sunday against the Dolphins, when Luck completed 30 of 48 passes for an NFL rookie record 433 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, as the Colts won 23-20 and improved to 5-3 on the season. Only two teams in the AFC — the Texans and Ravens — have better records than the Colts, who are the leaders in the AFC wild card race at the halfway point of the season.

“No one cares about your record at this point of the season,” Luck said after the game. “It’s all about making it to the playoffs. Obviously, it was a step in the right direction. I am proud of that, but we haven’t accomplished the end goal by any means.”

Will the Colts accomplish their goal of making the playoffs this year? I don’t know, but I do know that there are at least four games left on their schedule in which they should be favored: Thursday night at Jacksonville, Week 12 at home against the Bills, Week 14 at home against the Titans and Week 16 at Kansas City. If the Colts do nothing more than win those four games, they’ll have a 9-7 record, which is probably going to be good enough to make the playoffs in the mediocre AFC. For the worst team in the league last season, a 9-7 record and a wild-card berth would represent an enormous step forward.

And it’s a step that they’re taking primarily because of Luck, who has complete command of the Colts’ offense and a veteran’s mastery of reading through his progressions and finding open receivers. Luck also has a beautiful NFL arm, as he showed on his 36-yard touchdown strike to T.Y. Hilton on Sunday. At age 23, Luck isn’t a good quarterback prospect. He’s a good quarterback right now. And he may be a starting quarterback in a playoff game in two months.

Luck turned in my favorite performance of this Sunday in the NFL. Here are my other thoughts:

Turn your microphone off, ref. Dolphins-Colts referee Tony Corrente got into a shouting match with one of his fellow officials and yelled an expletive — with his microphone on, for all the fans and the TV audience to hear. The NFL’s officiating department will surely remind Corrente that he needs to make sure his mic is turned off after he’s done making an announcement.

Is this pro wrestling? The most shocking moment on Sunday came when Browns linebacker Kaluka Maiava lifted Ravens left tackle Michael Oher and slammed him to the ground. Oher, who as the subject of The Blind Side is the NFL’s most famous offensive lineman, weighs 315 pounds and isn’t easy to throw around. But if there’s any NFL player who can do pull off a wrestling-style takedown of Oher, we shouldn’t be surprised that it was Maiava: He’s the nephew of pro wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Ed Reed is as good a safety as the NFL has ever seen. Reed, who recorded the 60th interception of his NFL career in the Ravens’ 25-15 win over the Browns, has been brilliant in pass coverage during his 11-year career. But my favorite thing about him is the way he turns into a playmaker when he gets the ball in his hands: Reed is the all-time leader in interception return yards, with 1,507, and his average of 25.1 yards per interception return ties him with his old teammate Deion Sanders for the best average ever for a player with at least 30 interceptions. He would have been a great two-way player.

Christian Ponder better turn things around in a hurry. Ponder had a hot start this season and the Vikings won four of their first five games. Now he’s gone into a tailspin and the Vikings have lost three of their last four. Ponder was terrible in Sunday’s loss in Seattle, completing 11 of 22 passes for 63 yards, for a pathetic 2.9 yards per pass, with an interception. After looking like playoff contenders at the start of the season, the Vikings are now a loss to the Lions this week away from being in last place in the NFC North.

Doug Martin is amazing. Have you seen what Martin, the Buccaneers’ rookie running back, has been doing lately? Martin had 25 carries for 251 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday in Oakland, just the second time in NFL history a player had 250 yards and four touchdowns in a game. Martin is a phenomenal athlete with great speed, but I also love what a smart runner Martin is. As Martin raced down the sideline on his 67-yard touchdown, he saw that Raiders safety Matt Giordano was gaining on him. Giordano is one of the fastest players in the NFL, one of the few players who could catch Martin from behind, and Martin saw that Giordano was bearing down on him. So Martin wisely put on the brakes and allowed Giordano to run right past him before cutting back inside and getting into the end zone. Martin was just named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the month for October, and he played his best game yet on the first game day of November. No one is playing the running back position better than Martin right now.

Peyton is the king of the comebacks. Manning’s Broncos trailed 20-17 in the fourth quarter against the Bengals, but on the strength of his two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, the Broncos ended up winning 31-23. Sunday’s game featured Manning’s 48th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime, passing Dan Marino for the most comeback wins for any quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, which is as far back as those records are kept. Manning is continuing to show in his first season in Denver that he’s among the handful of players in the conversation about the greatest quarterback ever to play the game. It says something about how well Luck has played that the fans in Indianapolis don’t seem to miss Manning right now.

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John Madden: Super Bowl call will “torment” Pete Carroll forever

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 01:  Head coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks looks dejected after defeat to the New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28-24.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) Getty Images

Seahawks Pete Carroll acknowledged after the Super Bowl that he’d always regret the decision to pass at the goal line rather than run.

That’s almost easy to say now, at a time when he’s trying to insulate the coordinator who called the play, and the quarterback who threw the game-losing interception.

But one of the best coaches the game has ever known said the memory won’t get any easier with time.

That will torment him forever,” Hall of Famer John Madden told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. “Winning one game is hard. Getting to the Super Bowl is hard. Then getting that close and losing has to be tough, because we only remember the winners of the Super Bowl.

“One of the biggest gaps in sports is the difference between the winning and losing teams of the Super Bowl. They don’t invite the losing team to the White House. They don’t have parades for them. They don’t throw confetti on them.

“Does it haunt you? Hell yes, it haunts you. I’m still haunted by some championship games.”

Madden’s Raiders lost five conference championship games in seven years, nearly taking the pleasure out of finally winning one.

But he doubts that Carroll having won one will take the sting away from the chance at a second.

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Kraft tells Larry King he hopes he helped Brady’s appeal

larryking AP

There’s been plenty of talk around the NFL that Patriots owner Robert Kraft decided not to fight the NFL’s Deflategate penalties because the NFL has given a quiet assurance that Tom Brady will get a favorable ruling on the appeal of his four-game suspension. Now a report from Larry King (of all people) indicates that Kraft was thinking along those lines when he decided to accept the NFL’s punishment.

King wrote on Twitter that he talked to Kraft today, and that Kraft told him he’s hoping that accepting the NFL’s penalties will help Brady in his own fight against his four-game suspension.

It’s not often that NFL news is broken by Larry King, but this seems plausible. Even as Kraft has given up the fight against the Patriots’ sanctions, he still steadfastly supports Brady. It would make sense that Kraft would give up the fight against the league primarily because he wants to help Brady.

Although if that is Kraft’s intention, he probably would have preferred that King not tweet about it.

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“Free Tom Brady” rally set for Sunday outside Gillette Stadium

The Destruction Of Tea In Boston Getty Images

Those aggrieved by Tom Brady’s four-game suspension are invited to a rally at a parking lot outside of Gillette Stadium on Sunday, per an announcement on Facebook.

The “Free Tom Brady rally” will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday and will “protest the unjust football arrest of half God half man Tom Brady.”

There is no indication the team has any connection to the rally.

The gathering, according to the announcement, will be “peaceful.”

As of this writing, 375 fans had indicated on Facebook that they would be attending.

One fan wrote: “Can’t be there but best wishes from England!”

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Tyrann Mathieu finally feels “free” after dealing with injuries

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 30:  Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals stands on the field during warm ups prior to the game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on November 30, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) Getty Images

Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu had to overcome a lot just to stick in the NFL.

But once he got there, stuff kept happening which kept him from doing what he does best.

But after a series of injuries that limited him, he’s finally well and ready to get back to the player he was in 2013 before a late-season knee injury, which was followed by a broken thumb last year.

It just feels good to be free,” Mathieu said, via Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic.

“He has a gleam in his eye that I didn’t see at all last year,” coach Bruce Arians said.

That’s saying something, because Mathieu was a playmaker on a good defense as a rookie, before the injuries took a toll on him. He admitted he was tentative last year, not confident in his own health.

“You try to stay as optimistic as possible,” Mathieu said. “But there is a reality to it, too. It’s kind of hard to keep telling yourself it’s going to be all right, especially when we got into the thick of everything last year, thinking that if I was 100 percent, I’d probably be able to help my team a whole lot more than I’m doing right now.”

So instead of playing freely, he worried about making mistakes.

“You play scared because you don’t want to give up a touchdown,” Mathieu said. “Or you play too aggressive because you don’t want to be singled out as if you’re not giving the effort. It’s kind of like the worst of both worlds.

“I’ve never thought about it as hard as I did last year. I was always thinking about something, rather than just going out there to play.”

So the fact he’s out there now, running around in OTAs, is a positive sign. Because when the Honey Badger doesn’t care about making mistakes, he’s at his most dangerous.

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Marcus Mariota has the NFL’s best-selling jersey in May

Marcus Mariota AP

Titans fans are eager to throw their support behind new quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Mariota has the NFL’s best-selling jersey for the month of May, Titans director of finance Stuart Spears told Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.

A study by a sports marketing company also found that Mariota ranks as the 39th most marketable athlete in the world. That may sound rather shocking for a player who hasn’t played a professional game yet, but Mariota was a popular Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon who enters the NFL with a significant fan base. It also helps that Mariota (unlike the only player drafted ahead of him, Jameis Winston) has a squeaky-clean image off the field.

So for now, Mariota is among the NFL’s top stars. But that popularity won’t last long unless he can prove himself on the field.

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On this day in 1985, the NFL ramped up its overseas efforts

2005 American Bowl in Tokyo - NFL Party - August 4, 2005 Getty Images

The NFL’s push to expand its international reach is no secret. Three regular season games are set for London in 2015, and the league has studied Brazil, Germany and Mexico as potential future game sites.

However, the league’s desire to grow its influence beyond the United States isn’t a new development. In fact, we’ve now reached the 30-year mark of the NFL’s serious concerted efforts to go international.

On this day in 1985, league owners approved a plan to play at least one overseas preseason game beginning in 1986, per the NFL’s Record and Fact Book. And beginning with a Bears-Cowboys matchup in London in ’86, the NFL scheduled at least one exhibition in another country for 18 consecutive years, according to footballgeography.com.

The NFL had previously staged preseason games outside of the United States, with a Cardinals-Chargers game in Tokyo in 1976 the first played outside of North America. However, they were not annual events.

But as the 1980s went on, the NFL’s international ambitions broadened. In 1989, the NFL would found and fund the World League of American Football, which lasted 15 seasons before the league decided to focus on staging regular season games outside of the United States.

Now, the NFL International Series has a foothold on the league calendar. The next logical question is whether an internationally based team will follow.

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Pats fan takes belief in Brady’s innocence to the grave

Tom Brady AP

Deflategate has taken a lot out of Tom Brady’s reputation across most of America. But in New England, Brady is as beloved as ever.

In fact, the extent to which some in New England are rallying around Brady has reached new highs — or lows, depending on your perspective.

We now have the late Patricia Shong of Auburn, Massachusetts, who passed away on Monday at the age of 72. Shong’s obituary ran in the local paper and told the story of her life, her family, her career and her favorite activities. And then it included a line about Shong’s continuing support of Brady.

“She would also like us to set the record straight for her: Brady is innocent!!” the obituary says.

That’s a popular sentiment in New England. But this is the first time we’ve heard it expressed from beyond the grave.

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Stephen Ross told Dolphins’ execs to go into win-now mode

Baltimore Ravens v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is tired of building for the future. He wants to win now.

That’s the message Ross has given his front office staff from Day One — and even before Day One. Dolphins G.M. Dennis Hickey says that when he was interviewing for the job, Ross said the time to win is now — and Ross vowed to pony up the money to make that happen.

Hickey said on 104.3 The Ticket that everyone in the front office and the coaching staff has been on the same page about the way to build the Dolphins, and that starts from the top, with Ross making clear from the beginning where his expectations were.

We’re a process-driven organization,” Hickey said, via Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. “Part of the process is collaboration, getting our coaches together with our scouts and getting them together to do their due diligence. The process is about making good, sound decisions that make sense.”

The Dolphins spent a fortune to sign Ndamukong Suh, and they’ve also spent a lot on players including Ryan Tannehill, Mike Pouncey, Cameron Wake, Branden Albert, Brent Grimes and Jordan Cameron. Those moves may help the Dolphins win now, but a day of reckoning is coming. Next year, the Dolphins are projected to be $17 million over the cap — putting them in by far the worst cap shape for 2016 of any team in the NFL. If the Dolphins don’t win now, they may regret the way they’ve structured their salary cap — because all those expensive contracts are going to make it harder to make more big moves in the future.

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Staubach on Hardy: I wouldn’t want an abuser as a teammate

Staubach Getty Images

If it were up to Hall of Fame Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, Greg Hardy wouldn’t be in Dallas.

Staubach said on KTCK-AM that while he admires the way Cowboys Executive Vice President Charlotte Jones Anderson has taken a leadership role in the NFL’s efforts on domestic violence, he still has a hard time justifying allowing a player like Hardy on the team.

“Well, it depends on getting a chance to understand the red flags . . . like the Hardy situation,” Staubach said. “Charlotte Jones is fantastic. She’s involved with the NFL on the committees. I think she had a hand in trying to understand that this guy deserves a second chance. I don’t have any tolerance toward domestic violence. If I was making the decision, it probably wouldn’t have been good for the Cowboys.”

Hardy missed 15 games last year and is suspended for 10 games this year for a domestic violence incident. Staubach said that’s not the kind of person he’d want as a teammate.

“I wouldn’t really enjoy being in the locker room with someone I knew was a domestic violence person. That’s how I feel,” Staubach said. “Today you know more about the personal lives of players. Back in the old days, there were some issues. But we never really had a domestic violence, smoking marijuana or . . . I’m sure it happened though, we just didn’t know about it. I would have really had a hard time with a teammate that you look at as a courageous, tough guy on the football field . . . to abuse a women in any shape or form, there’s just no excuse for it.”

The Cowboys have taken a lot of criticism for signing Hardy, but this criticism may sting the most. Few people are more respected in Dallas than Staubach, and Staubach doesn’t think Hardy belongs in the Cowboys’ locker room.

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Alouettes welcome Michael Sam, hope he becomes a football story

michaelsam AP

The Montreal Alouettes know there’s a social statement being made, with the signing of Michael Sam.

And while they’re clearly fine with being viewed as progressive, they’re also expecting what football teams expect from football players — production.

Alouettes president Mark Weightman, suddenly in the middle of an international story, said  he hopes the focus soon turns to what kind of player Sam can be.

We’re very excited because we have a very good football player on our hands. That needs to be the opening statement. We’re excited to see what he can do on the field,” Weightman said, via Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette. “I think we all see it as a positive thing. We, as a league, have always been very open to all players — regardless of race, background, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. This is just another example of it. And it’s a great opportunity for us to show that leadership with a guy like Michael.

“We got ourselves a fantastic football player who has a lot of strength of character, who demonstrated a heck of a lot of courage to do what he did by coming out before the [NFL] draft, before his professional career. I think that shows a strength of character and a strong . . . moral belief system. Those are the kinds of people that are good leaders. You want leaders on your team.”

Sam is slated to be in Montreal Monday, and will meet the media there Tuesday morning. And then when camp begins Wednesday, he can begin the path to showing he’s a football player and not just a guy hoping to become the first openly gay football player in the NFL.

If all he was interested in was celebrity, the CFL probably wouldn’t have been his destination. But if he’s serious about proving himself as a player, he has his opportunity, and he’s found a place which will welcome him.

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Houston “Hard Knocks” lets NFL put Watt front and center

Watt AP

J.J. Watt is just the kind of player the NFL wants to market, a fierce warrior on the field who turns into an easygoing, likable guy as soon as the game ends. So with process of elimination seeming to leave the Texans as the team that will be featured on this year’s Hard Knocks, it’s a good bet that NFL Films will put Watt front and center.

Watt is the NFL’s best defensive player but is not as well known to a mass audience as some of the league’s biggest stars. Hard Knocks is a way for the league to humanize Watt and bolster his popularity.

Hard Knocks also needs Watt because the Texans are, frankly, not as compelling a team as some of the past teams featured on the show. Coach Bill O’Brien isn’t made for reality TV the way Rex Ryan is, and although the Texans’ quarterback competition will be a major element of training camp, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett don’t exactly make for appointment television.

So it will be Watt around whom the upcoming season of Hard Knocks will be featured. At a time when many well-known players are getting attention for the wrong reasons, the NFL will like that.

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Moss shows up for high school graduation of fan in Minnesota

Moss Getty Images

In 1998, then-Vikings rookie Randy Moss made good on his vow to rip up the league. Along the way, he befriended a toddler named Kassi Spier.

Kassi fought leukemia as a four-year-old in 2000. In 2004, her father died in a car accident. In 2013, Kassi learned that she had a brain tumor.

On Friday, Kassi Spier graduated from high school. And her friend Randy Moss was there for it.

Via inforum.com, Moss traveled to Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, a 2,500-resident town 45 miles southeast of Fargo, to hand Kassi Spier her high school diploma at Friday’s commencement ceremony.

Moss last played in the NFL in 2012, appearing in Super Bowl XLVII with the 49ers. He started his career with the Vikings, spending 1998 through 2004 in Minnesota. He returned to the Vikings for a brief stretch in 2010.

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New coordinator aside, few changes expected on Steelers’ defense

Ryan Shazier, Keith Butler AP

Dick LeBeau is out and Keith Butler is in, but the Steelers’ defense isn’t changing.

That’s the word from Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward, who says the change at defensive coordinator is the only difference for the Steelers. Heyward says the Steelers’ D will still run the same schemes with Butler (who has been the team’s linebackers coach for the last 12 years) as it did under LeBeau (who has moved to the Titans after spending the last 11 years running the defense in Pittsburgh).

“I don’t think there are going to be too many changes,” said Heyward. “It’s going to be the same details. We will have a couple of new wrinkles, but we won’t share them now.”

The Steelers’ defense had a rough year in 2014, and they need to change something. But those changes will have to come from the players. The coaches are going to run the same system they’ve been running in Pittsburgh for a long time.

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Hernandez claims he’s running out of cash

Hernandez Getty Images

After nearly two years of legal maneuverings in multiple criminal cases and with no income, it’s no surprise that former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is running out of cash.

One of his lawyers, John Fitzpatrick, made that argument to a Massachusetts judge on Thursday in connection with the efforts of the mother of Odin Lloyd, Ursula Ward, to find assets that can satisfy the wrongful death lawsuit filed previously against Hernandez.

Ward’s lawyer, Douglas Sheff, hopes to obtain more information about property owned by Hernandez. Already, his $1.3 million North Attleboro home can’t be sold. Also, a court order has blocked Hernandez from selling a 2005 Hummer.

The families of Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu have also filed wrongful death claims against Hernandez, as has Alexander Bradley, who claims Hernandez shot Bradley in the face in February 2013.

Still pending is an effort by Hernandez to recover the remainder of his August 2012 signing bonus — $3.25 million from the Patriots. That money presumably will go to any victims who can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Hernandez injured or killed them. With Hernandez also convicted via proof beyond a reasonable doubt of killing Lloyd, the civil action against Hernandez arising from Lloyd’s death is a slam dunk.

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No developments yet in Mariota talks

Marcus Mariota, former Oregon quarterback and overall No. 2 NFL football draft pick by the Tennessee Titans, answers questions during a news conference Friday, May 1, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. Mariota was selected by the Titans in the first round Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) AP

The Titans and quarterback Marcus Mariota had intended to commence contract negotiations this week. If they did, they didn’t get very far.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, no developments are expected this week.

Mariota is the only pick taken in the top seven who has not yet signed. Because the first overall pick in the draft (quarterback Jameis Winston) signed a deal that includes offset language for the fully-guaranteed four-year deal and the third overall pick (linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.) agreed to a contract that has no offset language (allowing Fowler to get paid twice, if he gets cut), the question of whether Mariota’s language will include offset language could become a major sticking point.

Otherwise, the deal could be done very quickly, especially since the ceiling has been set by Winston and the floor by Fowler.

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