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London Fletcher’s streak is in jeopardy, again

London Fletcher AP

Veteran linebacker London Fletcher has appeared in 234 straight games.  He may not get to 235.

Fletcher, who overcame a hamstring injury and a balance problem in order to extend the number from 231 to 232 last month, now has an ankle injury.  He missed practice on Tuesday, and the short week prior to a Thanksgiving date with Dallas will make it difficult for him to keep the string going.

“It matters to London,” coach Mike Shanahan told reporters on Tuesday.  “It matters to us, not necessarily the streak, but playing.  And there is a reason why he has played all those games because he plays when he is hurt and hopefully he will be able to play.  But I can’t tell you for sure.”

Shanahan said that Fletcher likely will be tested during pregame warmups, with a decision made then.

Fletcher and Bucs defensive back Ronde Barber are tied with 234 straight appearances, the most among all active players.

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Cam Newton rips “classless” fans who cheered Manziel injury

Johnny Manziel AP

Cam Newton said he liked the support he heard from the home fans Sunday.

But he didn’t like the ones who cheered when Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel went down with a hamstring injury.

Newton said he thought it was “classless,” when some fans cheered as Manziel was being tended to by trainers.

“We’re better than that,” he said, before walking out of the interview room.

Newton wasn’t making a blanket statement, or ripping his entire fanbase. Just the stupid ones, who cheered when an opponent was down.

Manziel didn’t return in the second half, after leaving just before halftime.

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Panthers-Falcons tie would deliver division title to Carolina, in unusual way

Tie Getty Images

With the Falcons beating the Saints and the Panthers defeating the Browns, next week’s game between Carolina and Atlanta becomes the NFC South championship game.

But what if there’s a tie?  That’s when it gets a little interesting.

A tie between the Panthers and Falcons would give the Panthers the edge over the Falcons, with Carolina’s 6-8-2 besting Atlanta’s 6-9.  But if the Saints win to move to 7-9, what happens?

What happens is that the Saints and Panthers would, in the eyes of the NFL, be tied.  The NFL considers a tie as one-half of a win; at 7-9 for the Saints and 6-8-2 for the Panthers, the two teams would have identical winning percentages of 43.75 percent.  With the head-to-head tiebreaker a 1-1 split of their series, the Panthers would eke out the division tiebreaker with a 3-2-1 mark over the Saints’ 3-3 record.

So the Panthers win the division with a win or a tie.  The Falcons need to win the game.

And now your day is complete.

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Cowboys feasting on Colts’ mistakes

Terrance Williams, Greg Toler AP

The Cowboys are playing like they are dead-set on clinching the NFC East right now.

Dez Bryant’s 19-yard TD catch has given the Cowboys a 14-0 first-quarter lead over the Colts at AT&T Stadium.

Bryant’s score came one play after Colts rookie defensive back Dewey McDonald dropped a pass on a fake punt, giving Dallas the ball inside the Indianapolis 20.

The Cowboys’ first points came on a nine-yard TD pass from Tony Romo to Terrence Williams. The score punctuated a drive extended by a taunting penalty on Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman on a third-down stop.

The Colts (10-4) entered Sunday with an outside chance at a first-round bye, but their slow start has increased the odds that they will be playing in the wild-card round yet again.

Meanwhile, Dallas (10-4) now just needs to hold on to win the division for the first time since 2009.

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Stephen Ross says Joe Philbin will return in 2015

Minnesota Vikings v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

After a dismal performance in the second half of a loss to the Patriots last week, there was talk that the axe might fall on head coach Joe Philbin when the season came to an end.

Things went better for the Dolphins on Sunday when they blocked a Vikings punt for a safety at the end of the fourth quarter to take a 37-35 win in improbable fashion. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross made it a merrier Christmas week in the Philbin household after the game when he said that Philbin would be back as the team’s coach in 2015.

“Here’s a Christmas present. You don’t have to ask me anymore. He has one year left on contract and is coming back,” Ross said, via Andrew Abramson of the Palm Beach Post.

The Dolphins can’t make the playoffs with a win over the Jets next week, but they can finish 9-7 for the first winning season of Philbin’s tenure. It would also make two straight years of improved win totals and Ross appears to believe that Philbin can keep making progress in his fourth year on the job.

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Reports of fans outside Raymond James Stadium hit by lightning

lightning-getty-3 Getty Images

A frightening scene is unfolding outside Raymond James Stadium as there are reports of fans being hit by lightning.

According to Bay News 9, Tampa Fire Rescue has responded to the stadium. Officials said from five to seven people were being transported to a local hospital for treatment.

The stadium cleared out early as the Bucs lost 20-3 to the Packers. While there’s no word about the identity of those hit, the fact they were outside the controlled environment of the stadium as storms approached would have made it less likely to hear warnings to seek cover.

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FSU clears Jameis Winston in Code of Conduct case

Winston Getty Images

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston didn’t face prosecution in the wake of sexual assault accusations made in 2012.  He also will not face any discipline from Florida State.

Winston’s lawyer, David Cornwell, has published via Twitter the conclusion of the in-house proceedings:  “In sum, the preponderance of the evidence has not shown that you are responsible for ANY of the charged violations of the Code.”  Cornwell has confirmed that the quote comes from the ruling in Winston’s case.

The legal proceedings possibly will continue with a civil case seemingly inevitable.  But the absence of an adverse ruling against Winston removes plenty of the stigma that would have existed if Florida State had determined that Winston’s conduct violated university rules and policies.  Which in the NFL’s current environment makes it easier to justify drafting Winston.

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Dolphins fall behind early, storm back to win a wild one

mikewallace AP

It wasn’t easy for the Dolphins. But they took care of business in the end.

After the Vikings took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, the Dolphins finally settled down on both sides of the ball and stormed back to tie the game 35-35 late in the fourth quarter. When the Vikings lined up to punt with less than a minute left, the snap was bad, the Dolphins blocked the punt out of the end zone, and the resulting safety gave the Dolphins a 37-35 win.

It was an exciting ending that improved the Dolphins’ record to 8-7, although their playoff hopes ended when the Steelers won today. The Vikings drop to 6-9.

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill had a big day, passing for 396 yards and throwing four touchdown passes. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater continues to show promise and completed 19 of 26 passes for 259 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.

It was a weird game that saw, among other things, the Dolphins jumping offside twice as the Vikings lined up for a two-point conversion, moving the conversion from the 2-yard line to the 1-yard line to the half-yard line, where Matt Asiata plunged in for the score. That and the game-winning blocked punt were two of the stranger sequences of this NFL season. This was a fun game, even if it was ultimately a meaningless game between two teams going nowhere.

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Steelers are headed to the playoffs after 20-12 win

Antonio Brown, Heath Miller AP

The Steelers don’t know if they’ll win the AFC North, but they know they’ll have a seat at the postseason table.

Pittsburgh’s defense held the Chiefs without a touchdown and the Steelers ground their way to a 20-12 victory that guaranteed them a playoff spot for the first time since 2011. It also sets up a Week 17 matchup with the Bengals that will be for the division crown.

The Steelers sacked Alex Smith six times — linebacker James Harrison was a particular force — and thwarted every Chiefs effort to get the ball into the end zone even as they gave up plenty of yards between the 20’s over the course of the afternoon. Once things got tight, though, the Steelers rose to the occasion and exposed the Chiefs’ lack of threats in the passing game. They forced the only turnover of the afternoon, a Jamaal Charles fumble in Pittsburgh territory, and stuffed the Chiefs on fourth down to close the first half.

There are a lot of what ifs that can be played with Andy Reid’s decision not to kick a field goal there (or to use his last timeout before kicking a field goal down 2 scores with 1:40 left to play), but the Chiefs were always going to be put in a position where they needed a touchdown to win and they never looked able to get one on Sunday.

That’s a pretty fitting epitaph for playoff hopes, although the Chiefs technically still have some pending the rest of the results from the Week 16 slate of games. The Steelers know they’ll be facing the Bengals for playoff positioning and they’ll be trying to get their offense on track after being limited to 282 total yards and 2.6 yards per rush on Sunday.

A major issue appeared to be averted when a Ben Roethlisberger trip to the locker room to check out a knee issue resulted in no missed plays and no signs of impairment on the field upon his return. Roethlisberger was 18-of-25 for 220 yards and got nicked while throwing a touchdown to Antonio Brown to keep things moving as the running game went nowhere.

They’ll need more from Bell to keep things moving in the playoffs, but Roethlisberger and the defense proved to be enough to end the playoff drought on Sunday.

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Ravens trying to mount a comeback in Houston

Owen Daniels h25#3=, Torrey Smith AP

The Ravens have chipped away at Houston’s lead.

Wide receiver Torrey Smith’s 20-yard TD catch reduced the Texans’ edge to 25-13 with about six minutes left in regulation. The score was Smith’s second in a game that’s been otherwise lacking in many offensive highlights for Baltimore.

In a curious decision, Ravens coach John Harbaugh passed on an extra point after Smith’s score, aiming to instead go for two to cut the lead to 25-15. However, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt sacked quarterback Joe Flacco on the conversion attempt. As a result, the Ravens now need two touchdowns to take the lead.

Flacco has been picked three times, cornerback Kareem Jackson hauling in a pair of interceptions for Houston.

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Panthers hang on for wild one over Manziel-less Browns

Cam Newton AP

On a day when Johnny Manziel didn’t make it to halftime, the other Hesiman-winning quarterback provided plenty of excitement, as well as a playoff-saving win.

While Cam Newton threw one of the most ridiculous interceptions you’ll ever see, he also led the Panthers to a game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, helping them to a 17-13 win over the Browns.

The Panthers had to hang on through a fourth quarter of ridiculous swings, including an 81-yard touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer to Jordan Cameron.

But Newton answered with a scrambling play that turned out much better, running around and buying enough time to find Jonathan Stewart open in the end zone for the decisive score.

The Panthers improved to 6-8-1, and can earn a playoff berth with a win at Atlanta.

Manziel left the game just before halftime with a hamstring strain, and didn’t return. That might have been the best thing for the Browns, as Manziel was 3-of-8 passing for 32 yards before he left.

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Lions survive a scare in Chicago

suhclausen AP

It’s a good thing the Lions clinched a playoff berth yesterday, because they sure didn’t look like a playoff team today. But they managed to pull it out in the end.

Facing a Bears team that had benched Jay Cutler and all but given up on the season, the Lions looked lousy for much of the game but came back to earn a hard-fought 20-14 victory.

The win improves the Lions’ record to 11-4. They’ll travel to Green Bay next week, where the winner will win the NFC North and the loser will be a wild card.

Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen completed 23 of 39 passes for 181 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception, and he played a lot better than his stats suggest: He routinely hit receivers in the hands only to have his passes dropped. Alshon Jeffery, in particular, had a miserable game. If Jeffery had caught all the passes he dropped, the Bears very well might have won.

Detroit’s special teams were a disaster: Jeremy Ross muffed a punt to set up the Bears’ first touchdown, a roughing the punter penalty set up the Bears’ second touchdown, and Matt Prater missed what should have been an easy field goal. And Lions center Dominic Raiola committed one of the dirtiest plays of the year when he stomped on Chicago’s Ego Ferguson.

And yet in the end, the Lions found a way to win. Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell all played well, and the Lions can feel good about reaching the 11-win mark. They just have to play better next week if they expect to beat the Packers.

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Falcons beat Saints 30-14, set up NFC South title game

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Saints had the game in their building, and the ball in Drew Brees‘ hands.

And as has happened too often this year, that cost them.

A late interception sealed a 30-14 win for the Falcons on the road, setting up a win-and-in NFC South title game if the Panthers can hang on against the Browns.

It was the fifth straight loss at home for the Saints, stunning a crowd anticipating more into silence.

Brees threw two interceptions and was sacked four times, by a defense which had shown no indication it was capable of such a feat.

The game ended with a desperate Brees fumbling, and Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora returning it 84 yards for a touchdown.

Meanwhile, Matt Ryan threw for 322 yards and a touchdown, leading the kind of efficient effort you’d expect from him.

With Julio Jones coming back from an injury to add 107 yards on seven catches, the Falcons improved to 6-9 on the season with the sweep of the Saints.

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Patriots hold off Jets, clinch first-round bye

Nick Folk AP

If Rex Ryan is fired by the Jets on Black Monday, he might be getting calls from other teams looking for a coach.

He should also be getting calls from the teams that will face the Patriots in the playoffs. Coaching what might be his final home game with the Jets, Ryan summoned a strong defensive effort from his 3-11 team that kept them in the hunt for a win into the final minutes. For the second time this year, though, a play on special teams by the Patriots helped seal their fate.

Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork appeared to get part of a finger on Nick Folk’s 52-yard field goal try in the fourth quarter and Folk, who had a kick blocked at the buzzer in New England earlier this year, saw his kick fall short. The Patriots ran clock from there and left MetLife Stadium with a 17-16 victory that clinched a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

Ryan should be getting calls from potential Patriots foes to pick his brain about keeping the Patriots to 231 yards while sacking Tom Brady four times. It was a physical, impressive effort by the defense that looked like it might pay off with an upset win when Marcus Williams picked off a pass that Brady threw under duress in the fourth quarter.

The Jets wound up moving backward when Dont’a Hightower sacked Geno Smith after a blown protection, though, and Folk’s field goal went awry to confirm another loss in what looks like Ryan’s final season. Smith didn’t play a terrible game at all, completing 17-of-27 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown to go with the interception that set up New England’s go-ahead score, but, as was often the case in Ryan’s tenure, the offense wasn’t up to the task on a day when the defense brought the fire.

Brady was 23-of-35 for 182 yards and the Patriots found some success on short, quick passes that negated the Jets pass rush. That worked infrequently, though, and it was a rough day for the offense. Wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount and guard Dan Connelly were all out, which may have contributed to a performance that probably won’t cut it against better competition. There’s time to tweak things, especially if the Bengals can help the Patriots out by eliminating the Broncos from the race for the top seed in the AFC.

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Packers knock off Buccaneers, clinch playoff spot

Green Bay Packers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

The Packers are headed back to the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season.

With their offense sharp and balanced and their defense stout and disruptive, the Packers pulled away to a 20-3 victory at Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 31-of-40 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown for Green Bay, which improved to 11-4. The Packers will win the NFC North with a victory next Sunday vs. Detroit.

The defeat dropped the Buccaneers to 2-13 in Lovie Smith’s first season as head coach. And as Tampa Bay nears the offseason, fixing the offense looms as a major priority.

In defeat, the Buccaneers were limited to just 109 yards on 47 plays. Quarterback Josh McCown was sacked six times and connected on only 12-of-26 passes for 147 yards. The Buccaneers’ running game was punchless, racking up just 16 yards on 14 carries.

The Packers, on the other hand, got 99 yards on 17 carries from tailback Eddie Lacy, whose 44-yard rushing TD late in the first quarter gave Green Bay a lead it would not relinquish. The Packers also had two 100-yard receivers, with Randall Cobb (11 catches, 131 yards) and Jordy Nelson (nine catches, 113 yards, one TD) combining to catch all but three passes thrown their way.

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Richard Sherman says Patrick Peterson would be benched in Seattle

Sherman Getty Images

The war of words among the best cornerbacks in the NFL continues.  This time, one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL tries to kick another one out of the club.

Bob Costas of NBC’s Football Night in America asked Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman if he’ll watch the work of Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson during tonight’s showdown in Arizona.

“Not really,” Sherman told Costas.  “I really don’t care what happens in his game.  I’m concerned about what we’re doing, the win-loss category, and what the scoreboard looks like.  I think at the end of the day, the tape will speak for itself.  I don’t know if everybody’s compared on an even scale, and I don’t know if he should be mentioned with [the great cornerbacks in the league].  You give up eight touchdowns in a year; it’s hard to put you in that discussion.”

So what would happen in Seattle if a cornerback gave up eight touchdowns?

“At any point, if I gave up that many touchdowns, I think I would be benched on our team,” Sherman said.  “We have a level of accountability and that’s what we strive for.  You can’t give up big plays like that and still play.”

The game needs no further intrigue, but Sherman just provided some.  It would only be better if Peterson plays a little receiver, with Sherman covering him.

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