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Overconfident Bears expected Kaepernick turnovers

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

If the Bears looked surprised by the thorough beating they took last night from the 49ers, there might be a reason for it.

According to John Mullin of CSNChicago.com, there was an expectation that things would be easier, and that 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kapernick would be more generous with the ball.

Mullin said one Bears defensive player said they expected Kaepernick to “throw a couple to us.”

If that’s the expectation, it points to taking him for granted once they found out hyper-careful Alex Smith wasn’t going to play.

Another Bears veteran told Mullin “That’s a different team than I’ve been watching,” while one called it “a wake-up call.”

As much as their defense was caught naepping by Kaepernick (sorry, it was there, and I lack shame), the Bears also showed problems on offense that won’t be solved simply by the return of Jay Cutler. They struggled to protect Jason Campbell (six sacks), and the 49ers basically defied the Bears to throw it to someone other than Brandon Marshall, and they could not.

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Week 17 prime-time playoff play-in game could be elusive this year

Panthers AP

The NFL has yet to flex a 2014 game to the prime-time slot on NBC.  Next week, a flex definitely will happen because the league pre-selects no Sunday night game for the final day of the regular season.

So who will it be?  Ideally, it’ll be a playoff play-in game, with the winner qualifying for the postseason and the loser going home.  For every year since 2010, that’s come via a de facto division championship game.  The first year, the Rams and Seahawks decided the NFC West.  In each of the last three, the Cowboys and a round robin of division rivals determined the NFC East title.

At one point, it appeared that Lions-Packers could be the obvious pick.  But Saturday’s loss by the Eagles gave Detroit a spot in the postseason field, eliminating the win-and-in-lose-and-leave vibe from the Lambeau finale.  Bengals-Steelers also seemed to be a strong candidate for winner-take-all-loser-gets-nothing-and-likes-it, but the Steelers can clinch a playoff berth with a win today, reducing the stakes considerably for Pittsburgh’s Week 17 game against Cincinnati.

A Cowboys loss today keeps the NFC East in play, but Dallas goes to Washington next week.  A partially-relevant game, if played at night, would become completely irrelevant if the Eagles lose to the Giants earlier in the day.

Ultimately, the best chance for a season-ending division title game could come from the NFC South.  If the Falcons beat the Saints and the Panthers beat the now-eliminated Browns today, next week’s game between Atlanta and Carolina would give the winner the playoff berth and the automatic home game — even though the winner would be destined to be under .500.

Other possibilities for playoff play-in games possibly will exist for wild-card berths, but as of right now it’s hard to imagine the dust settling on Week 16 in a way that would have one game that will settle a playoff berth regardless of whatever happens earlier in the day.

The good news is that, regardless of the game that’s played next Sunday night, there probably has never been a Sunday Night Football game with bigger stakes than the game to be played tonight in Arizona.  If the Cardinals win, they’ll secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — which means that as long as they win, they won’t have to travel.  All the way through the Super Bowl.

If the Cardinals lose, they’ll likely be hitting the road in the wild-card round as the No. 5 seed, starting with a trip to the NFC South champion in two weeks.  At that point, the Seahawks would be a Week 17 home win against the Rams away from winning the division, and possibly securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

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Emmanuel Sanders questionable, too

Sanders Getty Images

The big news for the Broncos on Saturday was the placement of the 50-50 “questionable” label on quarterback Peyton Manning, who has a thigh injury.  Lost in the surprise that the not-so-mobile quarterback could be rendered entirely immobile by an injury that shouldn’t have much of an impact of his overall mobility is that one of his favorite targets is listed as questionable, too.

Receiver Emmanuel Sanders didn’t practice on Saturday due to an illness.  Via Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, Sanders developed “flu-like symptoms.”

Flu-like symptoms (and/or the actual flu) dehydrated Manning last Sunday at San Diego, contributing to his thigh injury.  For Sanders, the key becomes overcoming the symptoms and getting properly hydrated before Monday night’s game at Cincinnati.

In his first year with the Broncos, Sanders has a career-high 89 catches for 1,261 yards.  That yardage total exceeds his prior best by more than 500 yards.

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Sunday morning one-liners

Baltimore Ravens v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Bills can’t afford a letdown after last week’s win over the Packers.

Dolphins WR Mike Wallace has worked to be more than a deep threat.

LB Jamie Collins is finishing strong for the Patriots again this season.

Sunday could be the final home game for Rex Ryan as Jets coach.

The arrival of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has worked out well for Ravens QB Joe Flacco.

Can the Bengals beat the Broncos in the trenches?

The hope in Cleveland is that the second time is the charm for Browns QB Johnny Manziel.

The Steelers will need C Maurkice Pouncey to play well against Chiefs DT Dontari Poe.

QB Case Keenum has a chance to add to the story of his time with the Texans.

Colts P Pat McAfee has been handing out books to kids during the holiday season.

Have a look at a 20th anniversary Jaguars team.

Titans RB Bishop Sankey hasn’t made a big splash during his rookie season.

Broncos cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib have had a long run as teammates.

Where do the Chiefs have an advantage over the Steelers?

The Raiders aren’t having a hard time finding motivation.

Chargers LB Jarret Johnson explains how the team came back from 21 points down in Saturday’s win.

Cowboys CB Orlando Scandrick’s competitiveness is rubbing off on his teammates.

Making the case for the Giants bringing back S Antrel Rolle and DE Jason Pierre-Paul.

Eagles TE Zach Ertz had a busy day on Saturday on his way to 15 catches.

CB Bashaud Breeland caught a lot of praise after setting the Redskins up to win with his fourth quarter interception.

Blocking out the drama of the past week will be part of the Bears’ path to a win.

The Lions will kick off on Sunday with their playoff spot assured.

The Packers offensive line is drawing some compliments.

Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater is headed home for Sunday’s game.

Josh Wilson has gone from kick returner to blocker with Devin Hester joining the Falcons.

The Panthers will look to exploit the Browns run defense on Sunday.

Sunday will bring the 200th start of Saints QB Drew Brees’s career.

Can the Buccaneers defenders continue their improved play this weekend?

Said Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, “We’ve always been an underdog. That’s just part of being here and not having long, sustained success. We’ve got to change that.”

Said Rams DE Chris Long of the defense’s streak of 12 quarters without allowing a touchdown, “It’s great to be a part of it. I haven’t been a part of that before. But with the talent we have in this room, and the coaching we have, we really believe anything’s possible. We need to sustain that success and continue to build on it.”

RB Frank Gore had a big night in the 49ers loss.

G Keavon Milton was promoted from the Seahawks practice squad.

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Gruden, Griffin will indeed be back

Griffin Getty Images

When Washington coach Jay Gruden benched quarterback Robert Griffin III more than three weeks ago, the initial impression was that Gruden wanted to bench Griffin for good.  The truth, however, was that Gruden hoped to build Griffin up by tearing him down, ending the coddling and ultimately building a better team around him.

Reports emerging locally from D.C. painted a far different picture, with Gruden wanting to get rid of Griffin.  Coupled with the franchise’s silence on the matter, the issue took on a life of its own, with every word from Gruden scrutinized and, recently, unfairly twisted.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s back-to-the-future-style win over the Eagles, the local reports are dramatically different.  Jason Reid of the Washington Post, who wrote 17 days ago that “Gruden is now done with [Griffin], according to people within the organization,” leads his column with this admission:  “Jay Gruden and Robert Griffin III are expected to return next season.”

Yes, they are.  It’s not a recent development; the organization has been on the same page throughout this process.  The franchise hopes to make Griffin into a franchise quarterback by:  (1) making him better; and (2) putting better players around him in the offseason.

So, despite all the reports suggesting the end was coming for Griffin, the Post finally realizes he’s not going anywhere.  He never was.

“Let’s finish this season out on a high note against Dallas when they come here,” Gruden told reporters after Saturday’s win. “Then after the season we will make all the necessary adjustments. It’s a great opportunity for Robert to reestablish himself as the leader of this football team – hoping he does it.”

There’s nothing to twist in that or anything else Gruden said Saturday.  The team and the coach are sticking with Griffin at least for 2015.

Which means that the only remaining question is whether they pick up his eight-figure option for 2016 by May 3.  If the goal is to support him, they either need to exercise the option or extend his contract.

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Malcolm Jenkins: Eagles have been living on borrowed time with turnovers

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Getty Images

The Eagles’ playoff chances took a crushing blow on Saturday afternoon and one member of the team’s defense said that the issues that helped sink them have been brewing for a while.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins referenced two turnovers on Sunday that led to 10 points for the Redskins, including the interception thrown by Mark Sanchez with 1:36 left in a tie game that led to the winning field goal in a 27-24 Washington win. It’s the 26th time that an Eagles quarterback has turned the ball over and the 35th time that the Eagles have given the ball away overall, a sloppy habit that Jenkins said makes it some surprising that the team has nine wins in the first place.

“The biggest thing for us as a team is we were really counting our days anyway,” Jenkins said, via CSNPhilly.com. “We were negative-nine in the turnover ratio [after 12 games; they are now -8 after a three-game losing streak], so to even get nine wins with that was surprising. So once you hit the month of December where everything rights itself a little bit and teams are fighting for survival, you can’t win with that ratio. So we were really on borrowed time, and that’s starting to show up in these games where we’re playing really good teams and I think we finished even today, but we did a bunch of other things too that you can’t do to win.”

There was plenty of other sloppiness from the Eagles, including 13 penalties and two missed field goals, and another faulty decision to leave cornerback Bradley Fletcher one-on-one against a top wideout from another team. It all added up to a loss the Eagles couldn’t afford but one that Jenkins thinks they should have seen coming.

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Dontrelle Inman makes a timely first impression on offense

San Diego Chargers v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

There’s an old saying that NFL players should “act like you’ve been there before” when they make a big play during a game.

Sometimes that’s easier than others, though. Chargers wide receiver Dontrelle Inman caught his first NFL pass on Saturday night against the 49ers, for example, so it was hard for him to know exactly how one would respond later in the game to hauling in a fourth-down catch to move the  chains with little time left on the clock in an attempt to come back from being down 21 points with playoff chances on the line.

Inman’s 17-yard gain helped set up Malcom Floyd’s game-tying touchdown and the Chargers’ eventual win in overtime. After the game, Inman said his secret was to not think about the size of the moment.

“I never once thought about that it was fourth down,” Inman said, via the team’s website. “Antonio [Gates] and I talked about that on the field and we were so in the zone, so ready to win the game that nothing mattered.”

Inman had seven catches for 79 yards overall, production that the Chargers needed with Keenan Allen out of the lineup with a broken collarbone. The team hasn’t ruled Allen out of the regular season finale against the Chiefs, but that seems the likeliest option. Inman will again be one of the choices to step up as the Chargers try to secure a postseason bid and this time he’ll be able to act like he’s been there before.

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DeSean Jackson gets the last laugh against the Eagles

desean AP

DeSean Jackson was sent packing by Philadelphia and landed in Washington this offseason, and so he seemed especially happy that his big game on Saturday dealt a big blow to the Eagles’ playoff hopes.

They going home. Tell them goodnight. Bye bye,” said Jackson, via PhillyMag.com.

Jackson repeatedly burned Eagles cornerback Bradley Fletcher in coverage, said leaving a cornerback on a receiver who’s beating him is par for the course for the Eagles’ defense.

“They’re very naive and they play how they play. They could care less who is out there or who is at wide receiver, they’re going to play their defense the way they play it,” he said. “That’s the Philadelphia Eagle defense. I’ve been there a lot of years and witnessed a lot of players – wide receivers, tight ends – get off on some huge games on them, and I’m just happy to be on this side and be able to send them home with a loss.”

With 126 receiving yards, Jackson looked like the best player on the field on Sunday. A player the Eagles wish they could have.

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Julian Edelman, Kyle Arrington and LeGarrette Blount ruled out

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Getty Images

The Patriots had a long list of questionable players on Friday’s injury report and they didn’t wait until game time to make decisions on three of them.

The team announced Saturday night that wide receiver Julian Edelman, cornerback Kyle Arrington and running back LeGarrette Blount have all been ruled out of Sunday’s game against the Jets.

Edelman was diagnosed with a concussion during the week and his failure to travel to New Jersey indicates that he wasn’t able to gain clearance through the concussion protocol despite being a limited participant in practices during the week. Edelman has 92 catches for 972 yards this season, so they’ll have some catches to spread around to the rest of the receiving corps in Edelman’s absence.

Arrington has been bothered by a hamstring injury that knocked him out of last week’s game against the Dolphins. Arrington had played in 83 straight regular season games for the Patriots. Blount was listed on the injury report with a shoulder injury and his absence could lead to a continuation of Jonas Gray’s return to the lineup after running well against Miami last Sunday.

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AFC playoff picture: Chargers turn up the pressure on wild-card foes

Sean Lissemore AP

Yes, the Chargers surrendered 355 yards rushing to the 49ers on Saturday night. And yes, the Chargers have a few too many injuries for comfort.

Nevertheless, the Chargers’ 38-35 overtime victory at San Francisco keeps them in the thick of the wild-card race. At the moment, they are the No. 7 seed in the AFC, a half-game back of Baltimore and Pittsburgh and a half-game ahead of Kansas City and Buffalo.

Now, the Chargers wait. They are in the clubhouse, visor on table, an iced tea at their fingertips, shirt untucked. They were in some real rough against the Niners, down 21 points on two occasions, but they got it going on the back nine, and they’ve carded a good score.

Yes, their swing isn’t textbook perfect, but these Chargers know how to get up-and-down. Let’s see what the other wild-card contenders do if they get in the deep stuff.

Here’s how the AFC playoff seeding looks after Saturday night. The NFL’s standings and tiebreaking rules were cited. Also, the Week 16 playoff scenarios are herein.

THE BIG SIX

1. New England Patriots (11-3, .786). Has clinched playoff spot. AFC East winner. Seeded ahead of Denver on basis of head-to-head win.

2. Denver Broncos (11-3, .786). Has clinched playoff spot. AFC West winner.

3. Indianapolis Colts (10-4, .714). Has clinched playoff spot. AFC South winner.

4. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4-1, .679). AFC North leader.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5, .643). Wild card No. 1. Seeded ahead of Baltimore on basis of superior AFC North record (3-2 vs. 2-3).

6. Baltimore Ravens (9-5, .643). Wild card No. 2.

JUST MISSING

7. San Diego Chargers (9-6, .600).

8. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6, .571). Seeded ahead of Bills on basis of head-to-head win.

9. Buffalo Bills (8-6, .571).

10. Houston Texans (7-7, .500). Seeded ahead of Dolphins on basis of better AFC record (6-4 vs. 6-5).

11. Miami Dolphins (7-7, .500).

Note: According to NFL.com, the Browns (7-7) have been officially knocked out of playoff contention with San Diego’s win.

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Chargers’ miraculous comeback keeps playoff hopes alive

frankgore AP

The Chargers are still in it.

After a wild, back-and-forth game that saw the 49ers take a 21-0 lead only to have the Chargers storm back, force overtime and ultimately win 38-35, the Chargers are 9-6 and still right in the thick of the AFC playoff race.

Although a loss to the 49ers tonight wouldn’t have mathematically eliminated the Chargers from playoff contention, it would have made it an extreme long shot. But with this victory, the Chargers are right in the thick of things heading into Week 17.

The 49ers lost despite rushing for a whopping 355 yards — the most rushing yards any losing team has had in an NFL game since at least 1940. It was a tough loss in a game they looked like they were sure to win, and the end of this season is a tough way for Jim Harbaugh to exit San Francisco, as he surely will once this season is over.

San Francisco is out of the playoff race, but San Diego is very much alive. A big win in a great game on Saturday night has the Chargers feeling good about their chances, with one game to go.

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Chargers, 49ers head to overtime

rivers AP

It’s not over yet in San Francisco.

Phil Dawson’s potentially game-winning 60-yard field goal missed at the end of the fourth quarter, and as a result the Chargers and 49ers are heading to overtime.

It’s been a wild, back-and-forth game in which the 49ers jumped out to a 21-0 lead only to have the Chargers storm back and finally tie it 35-35 in the final minute.

Now they’ll have an additional opportunity to settle it.

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90-yard run gives 49ers some breathing room

Kaepernick Getty Images

Just as the Chargers were creeping back into the game, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick delivered a potential knockout blow.

Late in the third quarter and just inside the San Francisco 10, Kaepernick exploded for a 90-yard touchdown run to re-establish the home team’s 14-point lead, 35-21.  The effort came on a pass play, with Kaepernick stepping up in the pocket to his right, seeing a crease, and taking off.

That 14-point lead had just been carved in half by a Kaepernick blunder deep in 49ers territory, losing the ball while trying to avoid a sack.  San Diego recovered in the end zone to cut the margin from 28-14 to 28-21.

The Chargers’ score came one play after an impressive 63-yard catch and run by tight end Vernon Davis was wiped out by a pair of penalties.

There’s still time for the Chargers to come back and win, but the momentum has just swung sharply to the 49ers, not long after it had swung sharply to the 49ers.

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Desperate Eagles become Colts fans

Kelly AP

Looking like a team ready to make its move to the top of the NFC only 23 days ago, the Eagles have chased their 9-3 start with an 0-3 run that has a once-promising season on the brink.

The formula is now as simple as it can be for the Eagles:  Root for the Cowboys to lose the next two, and beat the Giants in New York.  Dallas faces the Colts on Sunday.

“I’ve been a big Andrew Luck fan before, now I’m going to be an even bigger one,” Eagles tight end Zach Ertz said after the game, via the team’s official website.

Coach Chip Kelly doesn’t seem to be interesting in donning blue and white.

“We have one game left against the New York Giants and we need to win that game,” Kelly told reporters after the loss.  “There are a lot of other things that have to happen besides that and we have no control over those.  The only thing we can do is prepare for the Giants.”

Maybe Kelly has the right idea.  Rooting for the Colts on Sunday becomes rooting for the team that just beat Philly next Sunday, when Washington hosts Dallas.  Which means rooting in part for receiver DeSean Jackson, the guy Kelly no longer wanted after 2013.  The guy who gained 126 yards against the Eagles on Saturday.

“We felt like our corners could stay with him and obviously they didn’t,” Kelly said.

No, they didn’t.  And the Eagles now need help to stay with the Cowboys.

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49ers running wild over Chargers

kaep AP

Every year in the NFL, there’s a late-season game in which a team with nothing to play for beats a team with everything to play for. Today it’s happening twice in one day.

Washington has already beaten Philadelphia, and now San Francisco is dominating San Diego.

The 49ers, who are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, are running all over the Chargers, who are still fighting for a wild-card berth. Just five minutes into the second quarter, the 49ers took a 21-0 lead when Antoine Bethea picked off a Philip Rivers pass and ran it back 49 yards for a touchdown.

Prior to that the 49ers had scored two touchdowns on offense, one on a pass from Colin Kaepernick to Bruce Ellington and one on a 52-yard Frank Gore run. San Francisco is cruising.

The Chargers will either pull off one of the biggest comebacks of the season, or they’ll lose a huge game to a team that’s already out of the playoff race.

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Chargers suffer yet another injury at center

Chris Watt AP

No team has been more devastated by injuries at one position this season than the Chargers at center.

Chris Watt, who got the start tonight against the 49ers, was San Diego’s fourth different starting center this year. And in the first quarter, he suffered an apparent left ankle injury and limped off the field. He was later carted to the locker room and replaced by Trevor Robinson.

Chargers centers Nick Hardwick, Rich Ohrnberger and Doug Legursky are all on injured reserve.

The injury to Watt isn’t the only problem for the Chargers tonight: A bigger problem is that their defense can’t stop the 49ers’ running game. San Francisco had 126 rushing yards in the first 12 minutes of the game and took an early 7-0 lead.

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