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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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Report: Chris Chester signs with Falcons

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Free-agent guard Chris Chester had lined up visits with the Falcons and Eagles. And he won’t be taking those visits.

Via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, Chester has signed with the Falcons. It’s a one-year, $2.8 million contract.

Washington released Chester earlier this week. In Atlanta, he’ll be reunited with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Chester signed with Washington in 2011, after five seasons with the Ravens. He started all 64 regular-season games in four seasons with D.C.

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Harbaugh “wouldn’t want any other quarterback” than “superstar” Flacco

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Is Joe Flacco elite? It’s a question that has become a punchline in some circles. And coach John Harbaugh seems to be ready to punch anyone who would ask that question.

Someone asked that question, with different and more words, during a Friday press conference. And Harbaugh defended Flacco aggressively.

Joe Flacco’s been a great quarterback from the day he got here,” Harbaugh said. “You wanna look back and say this has been the most talented offense in the NFL for the last seven years and they carried Joe Flacco, you can say that if you want, but it’s ridiculous. Joe Flacco is a great player, he’s only gonna get better. I think he’s hitting his stride, hitting the peak of his career. And I wouldn’t want any other quarterback in the National Football League. Period, end of story. So just write than and be done with it, because that’s the last I really want to hear about it.

“This guy is a superstar in the National Football League, and I’m thrilled to have him and I can’t wait to see what he does with all that young talent around him.”

They’ll need more young — and cheap — talent around Flacco in 2016, once his cap number shoots from $14.55 million to $28.55 million. With the head coach speaking of Flacco in such glowing terms, it’s going to be expensive to both knock down that cap number and to extend his stay indefinitely beyond the current season.

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NaVorro Bowman returns to team drills, doesn’t like knee brace

Bowman Getty Images

With multiple inside linebackers surprisingly retired, the 49ers need to get Navorro Bowman back. And they’re moving closer toward doing just that.

Bowman returned to team drills on Friday, joining the 49ers for an OTA practice session more than 16 months after tearing an ACL in the NFC title game at Seattle.

“It’s great having him back out on the field,” coach Jim Tomsula said regarding Bowman on Friday. “Then also the road he’s traveled here in the last year and a half. It’s just awesome to have him out there and I think he’s really enjoying himself.”

Bowman’s not enjoying one thing — wearing a brace on his surgically-repaired knee.

“He is not, they are not friends,” Tomsula said of Bowman and his brace. “But, we really want him to wear it. Just why not, that’s all. And you know what, he’s doing great with it, he is. But, you know Bo. He’s something else, just pushing, pushing, pushing.”

Patrick Willis and Chris Borland called it a career after the 2014 season, making Bowman a key component of a defense that is squarely in transition, especially with defensive lineman Justin Smith retired, too.

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Browns’ offense appears to be moving on from Manziel

Manziel AP

Josh McCown is firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback in Cleveland, to the extent that Johnny Manziel, a first-round pick of the Browns last year, appears to be largely an afterthought at Organized Team Activities.

After reporting on the first week of OTAs, Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland describes Manziel as “a fish out of water” in the offense the Browns are installing. Grossi writes that the Browns don’t seem to be developing Manziel so much as they’re moving on from him.

At the practice the media were allowed to watch, Manziel seemed to eager to run and not confident enough in his passing. And Grossi reports that one source who witnessed another practice says Manziel was actually even worse in a session that the media didn’t see.

The bottom line is that 13 months after he was drafted, Manziel still hasn’t done anything to make the Browns think he’s ever going to be their franchise quarterback. McCown is the starter for now, and someone else will probably need to be found to be the long-term answer in the future.

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Brady appeal hearing set for June 23

Getty Images Getty Images

The deadline for setting Tom Brady’s appeal hearing came and went on Wednesday without a date being set. A date has now been set.

PFT has confirmed that the appeal hearing will commence on June 23, and that it will continue if necessary on June 25. The news was first reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN.

On Thursday, a source with knowledge of the situation told PFT that the NFL and NFL Players Association had agreed to extend the Wednesday deadline, and that the NFL had offered a pair of dates that weren’t ideal for the union. The NFLPA had responded with a pair of weeks that worked, and the NFLPA was waiting for the league to respond.

Brady and the NFLPA wanted the hearing to be conducted in June, in order to ensure that sufficient time will be available to go to court and challenge the outcome of the internal appeal process.

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Browns unveil four-tiered variable pricing

Tickets Getty Images

With the blackout policy suspended for 2015 (i.e., dead as a doorknob . . . or is it doornail? I never know), teams need to find a way to attract customer to pay for tickets to game. The Browns are doing that by utilizing a four-tiered system of variable pricing.

The first tier consists of the Broncos and Titans. Yes, the Titans, because that’s the regular-season home opener.

Tier Two has the Ravens and Steelers. Tier Three consists of the Raiders, Cardinals, 49ers, and Bengals.

Tier Four has the two preseason games, against Washington and Buffalo.

The decision not to put the Ravens and Steelers in the top tier and the decision to put the Bengals in a tier lower than the other division rivals seem odd. But even in a league where coaches look for any ammunition to motivate players, it’s hard to envision Bengals coach Marvin Lewis firing up the troops by pointing out that the Browns saw fit to put the team that has made it to the playoffs four straight years in the third of four pricing tiers, only one click above games that don’t count at all.

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Falcons cut linebacker/alleged dog-killer Prince Shembo

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 21:  Prince Shembo #53 celebrates with Robert McClain #27 of the Atlanta Falcons following an interception against the New Orleans Saints during a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 21, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) Getty Images

That didn’t take long.

Within hours of charges being filed accusing him of kicking and killing his then-girlfriend’s small dog, the Falcons have released linebacker Prince Shembo, according to Zach Klein of WSB. The Falcons have since announced the move themselves.

“We are aware of the charges that have been filed against Prince Shembo,” the team said in a statement. “We are extremely disappointed that one of our players is involved in something like this. Accordingly, we have decided to waive Prince Shembo.”

Shembo was charged with felony aggravated cruelty to animals, for allegedly kicking a Yorkshire terrier named Dior, causing massive internal injuries.

The Falcons were willing to stick up for Shembo after they chose him in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, despite an incident during his college years at Notre Dame. He was accused of sexually assaulting a female student at nearby St. Mary’s College, who later committed suicide.

No charges were filed in that case, and the Falcons said they were “very comfortable” with him in regards to it.

They’re apparently less comfortable now, and moved quickly to distance themselves.

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Bills claim quarterback Matt Simms off waivers from Jets

Miami Dolphins v New York Jets Getty Images

The Bills decided to freshen up their four-headed quarterback competition, by grabbing a guy from their own division.

According to Howard Balzer of the Sports Xchange, the Bills claimed former Jets quarterback Matt Simms off waivers.

Simms was released yesterday, as the writing was on the wall for him with the Jets when Bryce Petty was drafted. But now he lands with former head coach Rex Ryan and quarterbacks coach David Lee, which can’t hurt his chances.

To make room for Simms on the roster, the Bills got rid of Jeff Tuel, who was rotating among Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor.

While Simms might not change the bottom line for the Bills, he at least adds more competition at the bottom of the depth chart

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Kiko Alonso surprised by how good his knee feels

kikoalonso AP

Ten months ago, Kiko Alonso suffered a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2014 season with the Bills. In the time since then, Alonso has been traded to the Eagles — and has healed so fully that he surprises himself with how good he feels.

I honestly didn’t think I’d be doing this much,” Alonso told Philly.com at Eagles’ OTAs. “I’ve just been going on how I feel, and it’s feeling really good.”

Part of the reason Alonso feels good is that he’s running without a knee brace.

“I feel comfortable without it,” Alonso said. “I never really liked wearing the brace.”

Alonso played for Eagles coach Chip Kelly at Oregon and knew that Kelly does everything at a fast pace and has a demanding conditioning program. Still, Alsonso didn’t realize just how hard he’d be going this offseason.

“I knew what to expect, but I definitely thought I’d be more in shape, but I was wrong,” Alonso said. “I remember when I was in Buffalo, I was like I can’t imagine going against the Eagles and that pace. Because if you don’t practice like that and you go, it’s brutal.”

That brutal work in May will pay off for Alonso in September, when he finally gets back on the field after his knee injury cost him a season.

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Jason Kelce: Missing the playoffs “almost a good thing” in hindsight

Seattle Seahawks v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The roster turnover of the Eagles (and the opinions about the reasons for it) have been a major topic of the NFL offseason and another member of the team has weighed in with his opinion.

Center Jason Kelce didn’t cite race, egos or anything other than the simple fact that the Eagles weren’t talented enough last year. Kelce said that he thought the team’s locker room was strong last year, but that “we were lacking in talent at a couple positions” and that failing to make the playoffs could almost be spun as a positive because it made the team address those needs.

“This might [tick] off a few people, but when we started off 9-3 … [but] we got lucky quite a few times to win games that we probably shouldn’t have been in,” Kelce said, via the Philadelphia Daily News. “I think that ending the season the way we did — didn’t make the playoffs — in hindsight is almost a good thing because it forced the coaches and the organization to reevaluate what we had. Guys all of the sudden that were on the bubble, [coaches now knew] that we need to make an upgrade there. We need to do this. We need to do that to improve the team as a whole.”

Kelce didn’t specify the areas, but the list of positions that the Eagles addressed this offseason is pretty much the list of positions on their roster as well as Chip Kelly’s move to the top of the personnel hierarchy. For a team that’s won 10 games in each of the last two seasons, it’s a major overhaul and one that’s going to be placed on Kelly’s shoulders however it plays out.

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Falcons linebacker accused of killing very small dog

dead-dog

Falcons linebacker Prince Shembo didn’t just allegedy kick a dog and kill it, he allegedly found one of the smallest dogs possible to kick and kill.

According to Alexis Stevens of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, police documents say Shembo killed his then-girlfriend’s pet Yorkie named Dior.

Yorkshire terriers, which top out around 7 pounds, are no match for 254-pound linebackers, it seems.

The Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Michele Pihera said Shembo was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, following an April 15 incident.

According to the report, his then-girlfriend Denicia Williams told police she had taken Dior to Shembo’s apartment, and left the dog there. When she returned, the dog was unresponsive, and died a short time later at an animal hospital.

She said the next day, Shembo told her he killed the dog, at which point she broke up with him.

A necropsy was performed at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter, where the cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma.

According to the report, Dior had “a fractured rib, fractured liver, abdominal hemorrhage, thoracic hemorrhage, extensive bruising and hemorrhage in the muscles in her front leg and shoulders, head trauma, hemorrhage and edema in lungs, hemorrhage between the esophagus and trachea, and hemorrhage in the left eye with internal injuries.”

The Falcons drafted Shembo in the fourth round last year from Notre Dame.

Photo credit: Gwinnett Police.

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Trey Watts suspended four games by NFL

Watts Getty Images

Rams running back Trey Watts, an undrafted free agent who made the team in 2014 and who appeared in 14 games last season, has been suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

The NFL announced the suspension on Friday.

Watts, the son of former Oklahoma quarterback and Congressman J.C. Watts, played college football at Tulsa. He gained 30 yards on seven carries as a rookie.

Watts is eligible to continue to participate in all offseason activities, training camp, and the preseason. The suspension begins after the fourth preseason game.

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Falcons linebacker Prince Shembo charged with killing dog

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA - MAY 16:  Rookie linebacker Prince Shembo #53 of the Atlanta Falcons runs drills during rookie minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility on May 16, 2014 in Flowery Branch, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

Falcons fans didn’t need this kind of deja vu.

According to Tony Thomas of WSB in Atlanta, Falcons linebacker Prince Shembo has been accused of killing his girlfriend’s dog.

Gwinnett Police have filed animal cruelty charges, alleging that Shembo kicked and killed the animal.

Shembo was last year’s fourth-round pick from Notre Dame, and this isn’t the first time his name has been linked to an unseemly situation.

When he was at Notre Dame, he was accused of sexually assaulting a female student at nearby St. Mary’s College, who committed suicide. No charges were ever filed in the case, and Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said last spring he was “very comfortable” with Shembo after their pre-draft research.

Of course, the Falcons own history with animal abuse dates back to former quarterback Michael Vick, who was imprisoned on felony charges for his role in a dog-fighting ring.

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Brandon Spikes on Belichick: We kissed and made up

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Linebacker Brandon Spikes’s first stint with the Patriots didn’t come to a happy end.

Spikes finished the 2013 season on injured reserve after he missed a practice and Spikes later said that the Patriots filed false injury reports while he was a member of the team. Spikes also referred to his time with the Patriots as “4 years a slave,” which only added to the surprise when Spikes wound up re-signing with the Patriots this month after spending last season with the Bills.

It’s less surprising that Spikes had nothing bad to say about coach Bill Belichick or the Patriots on Friday. Spikes referred to Belichick as a “genius” and described himself as “honestly in awe to be standing here talking” to the media as a member of the Patriots while sticking to the company line that the past will remain in the past.

“I don’t want to talk about that. You can clearly see me and The Hoodie kissed and made up. I’m here, that’s in the past. I’m moving on,” Spikes said, via WEEI.com.

Spikes said his only focus now is on making the team and his chances will be greatly improved if Belichick decides the team needs to shore up their run defense in 2015.

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Belichick doesn’t say much about #DeflateGate

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Patriots coach Bill Belichick met with the media on Friday, an unexpected press conference during an OTA session. And Belichick didn’t have much to say about the #DeflateGate situation. Which isn’t much of a surprise, because he usually doesn’t have much to say about pretty much anything.

Asked whether the football-inflation controversy takes away from the joy of winning the Super Bowl, Belichick said this, via a transcript distributed by the team: “That was a long time ago. We’re on to next year. It’s 2015. You can forget about last year; that was last year.”

But last year spills into this year as it relates to the availability of quarterback Tom Brady to play in the first four games of the season. Asked whether Belichick is preparing Jimmy Garoppolo to be the starter as of Week One, Belichick said, “We’re just going day by day right now. Everybody’s working hard trying to get better. That’s what we’re all doing.”

Asked whether it’s been tough to watch the events of the past few months, Belichick said this: “We’re just working hard every day to come out here and get better. Coaches, players, everybody in the organization, each day we’re trying to make it a little bit better than the day before. That’s where we’re at. That’s what we’re going to keep doing.”

Asked whether he agrees with owner Robert Kraft’s decision to accept the punishment imposed on the team, Belichick said this:  “He made a statement on it last week.”

But Belichick wasn’t only characteristically mum about the #DeflateGate situation. He also didn’t have much to say about the use of a drone to film practice.

Q: “What does that do for you?”

A: “Oh, I don’t know.”

I personally don’t know why Belichick would talk to the media and say nothing. He wasn’t required to speak today. So why even do it?

Maybe the goal was to present Belichick on short notice was to give the local media a chance to grill him about the Ted Wells report and the team’s reaction to it with minimum time to put together the best possible questions.

Or maybe it’s just Belichick being Belichick, and he wouldn’t have said anything of value or interest, no matter what the questions were or how much time the reporters had to formulate them.

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