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NFL Morning After: Adrian Peterson’s best season yet

Minnesota Vikings running back Peterson leaps over Detroit Lions safety Coleman during the second half of their NFL football game in Minneapolis Reuters

If I had told you on New Year’s Day that 2012 would be the best year of Adrian Peterson’s career, you would have said I was nuts. Well, I may be nuts, but Adrian Peterson is also the best running back in the NFL, and playing better this season than he ever has before.

Peterson, the Vikings running back who suffered a torn ACL in Week 16 of last season and spent his New Year’s recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, looked at the start of this year like he might not even be able to play football at all in 2012. Instead, Peterson put himself through a grueling offseason rehabilitation program in which the only doubt the Vikings’ medical staff expressed was whether they could keep the hard-working Peterson from overdoing it. He was ready to go for the first game of the season.

And what a season it’s been. In Sunday’s win over the Lions, Peterson carried 27 times for 171 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first player in the NFL this season to top 1,000 yards. Peterson leads the league in rushing with 1,128 yards, and he’s on pace to gain 1,805 yards this season. That would be a career high, as would his current average of 5.8 yards per carry, and he’s also on pace for a career-high 46 catches this year. Statistically, Peterson is having his best season.

But it goes beyond the statistics. It’s that Peterson, who last made the playoffs as a young player on a 2009 team led by Brett Favre, is now the veteran leader of this 6-4 Vikings team, which has legitimate playoff aspirations. It’s that Peterson is doing everything against defenses that are built to stop him: On Sunday, with the Vikings’ top receiver, Percy Harvin, sidelined, the Lions were stacking eight and even nine players in the box to stop Peterson. But they simply couldn’t: He broke tackles, outran people, and even hurdled a defender on a spectacular demonstration that his knee is 100 percent healthy. (Although the run on which he hurdled a defender didn’t count toward his stats, as it was called back by a holding penalty.)

Now the question is whether the Vikings, who are one of the NFL’s pleasant surprises through 10 games, can do it for six more games. Frankly, the smart money says they can’t. The Vikings still have to play the Bears twice, the Packers twice and the Texans once. They’ll probably only be favored in one of their final six games, Week 15 at St. Louis. So at the end of the season, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Peterson’s heroics weren’t enough to lead the Vikings to a winning record.

But if the Vikings go through that gauntlet and end up in the playoffs, and if Peterson keeps up his current pace, it would represent by far the best season of his career. And it would make Peterson more than just the best running back in football. It would make him a strong candidate for the NFL’s MVP.

Peterson was the player who impressed me the most on Sunday. Here are my other Sunday thoughts:

Chip Kelly and Michael Vick would make a dynamic duo in 2013. Kelly, the Oregon head coach whose team is unbeaten this season, is widely regarded as a strong NFL head-coaching candidate. And Vick, the Eagles quarterback who suffered a concussion in Sunday’s loss against the Cowboys, is widely regarded as needing a fresh start after things have fallen apart for him in Philadelphia. So what could be better than Kelly (whose spread offense is predicated on having a quarterback who can beat defenses with his legs or his arm) coaching Vick (who is the NFL’s all-time leader for rushing yards by a quarterback)? Let me be the first to admit that it’s entirely possible that Kelly’s system wouldn’t work in the NFL, and it’s also entirely possible that Vick is simply done as a quality NFL starter. Yes, there’s a chance it would be an utter disaster. But there’s also a chance that Kelly and Vick would be an incredible pairing. I’d love to see it happen next season.

Titans running back Chris Johnson is the most inconsistent player in NFL history. After his 23-carry, 126-yard game against the Dolphins on Sunday, Johnson now has four games this season in which he gained more than 120 yards and at least 5.5 yards a carry. He also has four games this season in which he gained less than 25 yards and averaged less than 2.2 yards a carry. It seems impossible that a player who’s capable of the kind of greatness we routinely see from Johnson is also capable of turning in the kinds of dreadful performances that have become routine for Johnson. But that’s what Chris Johnson is: On any given Sunday he might be the best running back in the league, or the worst.

Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part One) Broncos punt returner Trindon Holliday raced 76 yards for a touchdown in Carolina, but there was just one problem: He decided to start celebrating his touchdown after 75 yards. Holliday flipped the ball into the air before crossing the goal line, which means it should have been ruled a fumble into the end zone and the Panthers’ ball. But the officials on the field for some reason ruled it a touchdown, and even more egregiously, the replay assistant failed to signal to the referee to review it — even though the rules say that every touchdown needs to be confirmed on replay before the extra point is kicked. It was a stupid mistake by Holliday, a major oversight by the officials on the field, and it ought to be a firing offense for the replay assistant who failed to fix it.

Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part Two) In one of the worst pieces of officiating you’ll ever see, the Vikings were briefly awarded an interception return for a touchdown on an incomplete pass — an incomplete pass that was so incredibly obvious that it’s stunning that none of the seven officials on the field saw that the ball bounced off the ground. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s incomplete pass bounced into the hands of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who grabbed it and just stood there for a couple of seconds before he realized that none of the officials had seen it hit the ground, at which point he sprinted into the end zone for what was ruled on the field as a touchdown. The call was correctly overturned on replay, but it’s ridiculous that the officials needed replay to get that one right.

Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part Three) Sunday’s most replacement-like officiating happened in the bizarre tie game in San Francisco, where the men in stripes simply looked like they had no clue. Long delays, conferences in which all of the officials appeared to be confused, and bad calls abounded. The worst of all was a strange sequence in which the officials allowed the clock to keep running while they brought out the chains for a measurement, resulting in more than a minute being wrongly run off the clock. Mistakes like that are inexcusable.

Indianapolis is going to the playoffs. The Colts’ win on Thursday, combined with losses by the Chargers and Dolphins on Sunday, give Indianapolis a two-game lead over the rest of the pack in the AFC wild card race. Considering that the Colts still have games against the 3-6 Bills, the 4-5 Lions, the 4-6 Titans and the 1-7 Chiefs, it’s almost impossible to envision Indianapolis falling short of a winning record, and this looks like a season in which anything over .500 is going to be good enough to secure an AFC playoff spot. Amazing as it is to say, the team that finished last year with the worst record in the league will finish this year in the playoffs. That’s almost as amazing as a running back who entered the year with a devastating knee injury finishing the year as an MVP candidate.

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Trent Williams hopes to play on Monday night

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The Redskins played last Thursday night and lost to the Giants in a rout that was made all the worse by the departure of left tackle Trent Williams with a knee injury.

Any initial fears of a season-ending injury subsided on Friday, but his presence in Week Five is still anything but certain. Williams didn’t practice on Tuesday and said that his knee still needed to “calm down,” but he remains hopeful that he’ll be able to play on Monday night against the Seahawks.

“I’ll probably let it calm down a little bit,” Williams said, via CSNWashington.com. “Hopefully no setback. I’ll probably get it reevaluated before the game and hopefully — I’ll leave it up to coach — but hopefully I can be out there.”

Williams may have company when it comes to returning from a recent injury. Tight end Jordan Reed participated in individual drills on Tuesday, which marks a notable step forward in his recovery from a hamstring injury suffered in the season opener. Getting Reed back would be a plus for the offense, especially if Niles Paul can’t go because of the concussion he suffered against the Giants.

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Falcons make a flurry of moves to refill their offensive line

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Well, at least Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has healthy receivers this year.

Offensive linemen, not so much.

The Falcons just announced a flurry of moves, which included putting two more starting offensive linemen on injured reserve.

They announced that center Joe Hawley (knee) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) were going on IR, where they’ll join left tackle Sam Baker (knee).

They also placed safety William Moore (shoulder) on IR/designated for return, which will allow him to come back after eight weeks.

To fill the roster spots, the Falcons promoted guard Harland Gunn and safety Sean Baker from the practice squad, and signed former Jaguars tackle Cameron Bradfield.

That’s going to make a real hash of their offensive line, but no worse than it was Sunday, when they had to use tight end Levine Toilolo as their right tackle to finish the game when injuries collected at one spot.

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Mike Tomlin doesn’t mind label, he minds lazy sterotypes

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Two days after Mike Tomlin bristled at being termed a “player’s coach,” during a pregame interview, he said he mostly bristles at the broad characterization it creates.

Tomlin told reporters Tuesday that he doesn’t necessarily take it as an insult, but that he’s insulted by the undertones the phrase carries.

I refuse to be put in a box. It’s my job to be what my team needs me to be,” Tomlin said, via Scott Brown of ESPN.com. “Sometimes it’s close and cuddly and sometimes it’s not. I don’t have any problem being any of the above.

“Sometimes when they couple ‘player’s coach’ with questions about how I wear my hair or what I choose to wear on the sidelines or what type of music I listen to, then it gets kind of old and falls into that category for me. I’d like to think the manner in which I do my job, whether it’s positive or negative, has very little to do with my haircut or the clothes that I wear or the type of music I listen to, and that’s when I get annoyed with that line of questioning.”

Tomlin’s got a point, and it’s no different than the way players are characterized.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton got compared to players such as Michael Vick or Donovan McNabb before being drafted, even though he played more like Ben Roethlisberger.

Certain players are tagged as “athletic” and “instinctive” and certain players are “lunch pail guys” or “coaches on the field.”

And too often in the lazy telling of stories, those phrases fall along strict lines that just happen to coincide with the color of the players’ skin.

To that end, we agree with Tomlin. He’s not necessarily a player’s coach, any more than Dick LeBeau is.

He’s just a good one.

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Raiders settle on Tony Sparano as interim head coach

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Tony Sparano is set to become the Raiders’ interim head coach after the firing of Dennis Allen.

After several conflicting reports emerged over the last 12 hours about who the Raiders would go with as Allen’s replacement, Jim Trotter of ESPN reported on Tuesday that it’s Sparano, who had the title of assistant head coach and offensive line coach on Allen’s staff.

Sparano previously served as the head coach of the Dolphins from 2008 to 2011.

If the reports are correct that Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie wanted Sparano but owner Mark Davis preferred Al Saunders, that would indicate that Davis still has confidence in McKenzie’s decision-making. Which is odd, considering that most of McKenzie’s decisions as Oakland’s G.M. haven’t panned out.

The 0-4 Raiders are on their bye week, which will give Sparano some extra time to make whatever changes he deems necessary. Although Sparano will presumably get the final 12 games of the season to prove himself capable of handling the job on a permanent basis, it seems more likely that the Raiders will hire a new coach after the season ends. That coach will be the Raiders’ 10th head coach in 15 years.

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Michael Crabtree says things are “good over here”

Crabtree Getty Images

When NFL Network’s Deion Sanders tried to bogart the Apple laptop with the logo blacked out by electrical tape due to the whole Microsoft thing from Ian Rapoport, some thought Sanders’ information regarding discord with the 49ers came directly from receiver Michael Crabtree.

Sanders has denied that Crabtree was the source.  Crabtree took to Twitter on Tuesday to say this, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News:  “I don’t know what people are talking about with Mr Deion… But we good over here!

Sanders insisted otherwise, citing anonymous sources to support his belief that the players want coach Jim Harbaugh to leave.  The claim has been attacked in part by questioning the overall validity of any reporting based on unnamed sources, a naive strategy that overlooks the reality that the decision of a source to not attach a name to a piece of information doesn’t automatically make that information suspect.  The challenge for the reporter, however, is to vet the source and the information for credibility and accuracy.

Deion doesn’t have the education (then again, neither do I), the skill (then again, neither do I), or the experience (one out of three ain’t bad) to properly evaluate information from anonymous sources.  That’s the issue here, and that’s why Deion should have simply shared what he was hearing with management, so that the people paid by the league-owned to find stuff out about the league that employs them can do their jobs.

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Teddy Bridgewater: Too soon to say if I’ll play Thursday

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Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a sprained ankle in Sunday’s win over the Falcons, and it left him unsure whether he’ll be ready to go on Thursday night against the Packers.

“Each day I’m making progress,” Bridgewater said today. “I’m just going to keep moving, move forward and try to get ready for Thursday.”

Asked if he could put a percentage on his chances of playing, Bridgewater answered, “I cannot. We still have a long time until Thursday, so right now I’m going to continue to just rehab, do a little exercise today and see where I am the next couple days.”

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sounded optimistic about Bridgewater’s chances, but he emphasized that it’s ultimately a medical decision about whether Bridgewater is healthy enough to go.

“He’s out here today in a walk-through. He’s fine, really. He’s good,” Zimmer said. “Just depends on when we feel he’s ready. He won’t if we feel he’s not ready.”

If Bridgewater can’t go, the Vikings will turn to Christian Ponder. Which means Vikings fans are hoping beyond hope that Bridgewater can go.

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Choice for Raiders interim coach down to two

Oakland Raiders 2011 Headshots

For the moment, Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie’s job seems safe.

But he’s also about to make a decision which could make him less so.

According to Scott Bair and Fallon Smith of CSNBayArea.com, the Raiders’ choice for an interim coach is down to two: Tony Sparano or Al Saunders.

Owner Mark Davis prefers Saunders, according to the report, while McKenzie prefers Sparano. But Davis is going to allow McKenzie to make the final call.

Honestly, it might not matter.

Depending on who Davis sets his sights on when it comes to a permanent coach, that person might or might not want McKenzie around. But going against your boss’s wishes at a time when your own job is own the line is going to make it an interesting call for the G.M.

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After FCC vote, NFL reiterates its commitment to free TV

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The NFL opposed the effort to dump the blackout rule in part by suggesting that the removal of the ability to prevent games from being televised for free in markets where the home team had failed to sell out the stadium would lead to the NFL fleeing free TV generally.  Now that the FCC has overturned the blackout rule, the NFL has renewed its commitment to audience-maximizing, three-letter network broadcasts.

“NFL teams have made significant efforts in recent years to minimize blackouts,” the league said in a statement issued after the FCC’s unanimous vote to scrap the blackout rule.  “The NFL is the only sports league that televises every one of its games on free, over-the-air television.  The FCC’s decision will not change that commitment for the foreseeable future.”

The term “foreseeable future” implies that maybe, at some point down the road, the NFL’s attitude toward free TV will change.  For now, it won’t — in part because blackouts have become largely irrelevant.

Last year, only two of 256 regular-season games were blacked out in the home team’s market.  This year, none of the first 61 games of the season have been blacked out.

The push to dump the blackout rule has come in recent years, at a time when the number of televised games consistently met or exceeded 90 percent.  In prior decades, when the percentage of televised games fell as low as 41 in 1975 and hovered in the 50s and 60s in the ’80s and ’90s, there wasn’t a peep about the blackout rule.

Maybe the rise of the Internet has given fans a vehicle for pushing the issue.  Maybe the ongoing effort by billionaires to squeeze millions from the public coffers has generated a backlash.  Regardless, the blackout rule is dead — and its departure ultimately may not change anything.

Unless a large percentage of fans decides to quit buying tickets and to watch the games at home, knowing that the game will be on even if no one shows up.

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Browns get Ben Tate back on the practice field

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Apparently it was a perfect bye week for the Browns. Johnny Manziel didn’t end up on TMZ, and now Ben Tate is back in action.

According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tate was back on the practice field Tuesday after missing the previous two games with a knee injury.

Tate, who suffered a knee injury in the opener, wore a brace on his right knee but was reportedly moving well during the portion of practice open to the media.

The Browns brought him in during free agency to be their starter, but they’ve gotten good work out of rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West in his absence.

“That’s what we brought Tate here for, to be the starter,” running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said last week. “He’s the No. 1 running back in this offense. Right now, you can say we miss him. We miss his experience. We miss his leadership with the group. Speaking from that standpoint, we’ll be open arms and welcome to have Ben back into the fold, so he can come out and help us win more ballgames.”

Having too many backs is a problem they’d love to have in some places (like Carolina) right now, so working Tate back into the mix shouldn’t be much of a problem.

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Colts extend Robert Mathis through 2016

Mathis AP

Robert Mathis will not play at all this season after suffering a torn Achilles during a workout. But he’s still very much in the Colts’ plans.

The team announced today that it has extended Mathis’s contract for another season. He’s now under contract with the Colts through 2016.

Mathis was suspended for the first four games of this season for a violation of the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. He would have been eligible to re-join the team at practice and in this week’s game, but he tore his Achilles tendon while working out on his own during his suspension and has been placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Although he is out for the year, Mathis is expected to spend time at the facility in team meetings and doing rehab work, and Colts coach Chuck Pagano said this week that he thinks having Mathis around will be helpful for the team. Now Mathis will help the team for two more seasons.

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PFT Live: Jarius Wright

Jarius Wright, William Moore AP

The Teddy Bridgewater era got off to a smashing start on Sunday and we’ll talk to one of the biggest beneficiaries of the quarterback change in Minnesota on Tuesday’s edition of PFT Live.

Vikings wide receiver Jarius Wright will join Mike Florio to discuss the play of the team’s first-round pick in his first NFL start. Wright was responsible for 132 of Bridgewater’s 317 passing yards against the Falcons and we’d imagine that will lead to nothing but rave reviews for the new quarterback.

Wright had just 37 yards in the first three weeks of the season and the game was his best individual effort since joining the team as a fourth-round pick in the 2012 draft. We’ll hear what went right for Wright last Sunday and where he thinks his partnership with Bridgewater can go over the rest of the season when he visits the program.

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

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Bengals think Vontaze Burfict can return from concussion this week

Vontaze Burfict AP

The Bengals are back from their bye week and readying their preparations for Sunday’s attempt to extend their winning streak to four games against the Patriots on Sunday night.

Part of that process will involve doctors taking a look at linebacker Vontaze Burfict to see if he’s recovered enough from his most recent concussion to rejoin the team on the field. Burfict suffered concussions in each of the first two weeks of the season and missed Week Three, so he’s had some extra time to recover and coach Marvin Lewis believes the linebacker will be ready to go this week.

“I would imagine he will. Yes,” Lewis said, via FOX19 in Cincinnati.

The Bengals had no trouble polishing off the Titans without Burfict in the lineup, but the Bengals are obviously better off when he’s healthy and making plays on defense. If Burfict is cleared for practice on Wednesday, that outcome will be more likely.

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FCC unanimously dumps blackout rule

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The NFL wants to “Protect Football on Free TV.”  The FCC did just that on Tuesday, voting unanimously to abandon the blackout rule.

“This is a historic day for sports fans,” Sports Fans Coalition chairman David Goodriend said in a release.  “Since 1975, the federal government has propped up the NFL’s obnoxious practice of blacking out a game from local TV if the stadium did not sell out.  Today’s FCC action makes clear:  if leagues want to mistreat fans, they will have to do so without Uncle Sam’s help.”

It doesn’t mean the blackout rule has died; the NFL and broadcast networks can agree to abide by its terms.  Today’s decision means only that the NFL can’t insist on network blackouts via an FCC policy that previously gave the NFL the ability to pull the plug.

Since 1975, the NFL has blocked local broadcasts of games in which the home team failed to sell all non-premium tickets at least 72 hours before kickoff.

The next step could be to pursue federal legislation that would eliminate the broadcast antitrust exemption if the NFL doesn’t abandon the blackout practice altogether.  If the bill introduced last year becomes law, blackouts immediately will go the way of the dodo bird, the dropkick, and Tom Brady’s talent.

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Jared Allen resumes working out after bout with pneumonia

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Bears defensive end Jared Allen was knocked out of the Bears lineup last week with a case of pneumonia that reportedly left him 18 pounds lighter and unable to get on the field.

Allen’s outlook for Week Five after such a serious illness isn’t clear yet, but he has resumed working out at the team’s facility. Coach Marc Trestman said it was good to see him on Monday.

“We’ll see where he is on Wednesday,” Trestman said, via CSNChicago.com. “It was good to see him in the building, good to see him in all the meetings, he got some work in the weight room. That’s encouraging.”

Trestman wouldn’t confirm the magnitude of Allen’s weight loss, but getting enough strength back to play on Sunday is far from a sure thing. The chances that he’ll recover enough to play his usual workload probably aren’t great, either, so Willie Young should see plenty of time whether or not Allen winds up getting the green light against the Panthers.

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Bruce Carter will miss some time with quad strain

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After Dr. Jerry Jones misdiagnosed Morris Claiborne’s torn patellar tendon as an ACL, we’re probably going to want to get a second opinion.

But Jones said this morning on is weekly radio show on KRLD-FM that linebacker Bruce Carter would likely miss this week’s game.

This is one of those week-to-week [injuries],” Jones said, via Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We couldn’t get a firm yes from our trainers. It is one of those the proverbial, ‘Let’s see how he’s doing.’ These injuries, quad strains, are not long-term injuries. But you say, ‘Well, missing a game is getting pretty long term when you don’t have but 16 of them,’ but still we’ll have to see with him. If he’s moving pretty good.

“I think Carter is a good healer, and some people heal faster than others. So we’ll want to keep a close eye on him.”

Defensive end DeMarcus Ware missed three games with a quad strain last year, though it’s not clear if the extent of Carter’s injury is similar.

Carter went down like a sniper got him while chasing a Khiry Robinson run in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win over the Saints.

The Cowboys had momentarily found some stability on defense with Carter, Justin Durant and Rolando McClain at linebacker, but they’re going to have to adjust now.

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